(CNSNews.com) - With North Korea's underground nuclear test Monday, security experts are calling for the United States to invest more resources into a comprehensive missile defense program, which some Democratic leaders have long opposed.
Michael Needham, director of Asian Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that it has been the general assumption for many years that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons.
"Nothing has really changed by North Korea proving it has those weapons," he said.
But Needham told Cybercast News Service, "I think it's almost certain that three years from now, if Kim Jong-il is still in power, that he will develop a long-range missile that can reach United States shores. It is something we need to be very concerned about.
"I think that the most important thing we can be doing right now is investing in the national missile defense system, so that if and when a North Korean missile is capable of hitting an American city with a nuclear warhead - or any warhead - we have the ability to prevent that from happening and to defend ourselves," Needham said.
In 2001, when President George W. Bush first took office, he renewed plans to create a ballistic missile defense system capable of shooting down missiles headed for the United States. On June 13, 2002, the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with the former USSR in order to further the defense program.
"We now have for the first time in our history a limited ability to knock down a missile if one was fired at us, but we could have come a lot further if we'd had more focus," said Needham, noting that since 1991 "we've been missing opportunities on missile defense."
"There hasn't been a sense of urgency in Washington to move forward aggressively with this program," he said.
But Needham said that the North Korean nuclear test could jumpstart the missile defense program, "before we face the threat of North Korean missiles with nuclear weapons on top."
U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has opposed a ballistic missile defense program for many years.
In 2003, Pelosi said that "by shredding the ABM Treaty and flirting with the unthinkable -- 'usable' battlefield nuclear weapons - the Bush Administration turns the clock back on three decades of arms control." She noted that ballistic missile defense was not "technologically possible" and has not been proven to work.
"The United States does not need a multi-billion-dollar national missile defense against the possibility of a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile," Pelosi said three years ago.
"What we need is a strong nonproliferation policy with other nations to combat the most serious threat to our national security and to the safety of the world - weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists who would smuggle them into our cities," she said.
"The United States must not create new nuclear weapons and ignite new arms races. As the only nation ever to use nuclear weapons, we have a moral obligation to be a leader in ridding this scourge from the face of the Earth forever," Pelosi added.
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