SEOUL — North Korea’s efforts to develop a ballistic missile capable of reaching American soil apparently have some congressmen worried the U.S. is not prepared to fend off such an attack.

In a letter sent last month to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, five members of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces urged that funding be restored “to homeland missile defense programs to counter the rising long-range ballistic missile threat to the United States.

“The defense of the United States must be the top priority for the Department of Defense,” the letter stated.

The subcommittee members wrote that their letter was prompted by “new intelligence concerning foreign developments in long-range ballistic missile development, specifically, ballistic missiles capable of attacking the United States.”

While the substance of that new intelligence was not specifically identified, the letter makes reference to comments made in June by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates when he said, “With the continued development of long-range missiles and potentially a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile and their continued development of nuclear weapons, North Korea is in the process of becoming a direct threat to the United States.”

For years, the North has used nuclear and missile testing – and the threat of what it might someday do with that technology – as a way to get other countries to the negotiating table. In April 2009, it test-fired a long-range missile over Japan, the payload of which got as far as the Pacific Ocean.

Quoting anonymous officials in the Obama administration, the Washington Times reported this week that U.S. intelligence officials believe the North is building its first “road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile” that is easily hidden — and capable of hitting the U.S.

That information was shared with lawmakers at a classified Capitol Hill briefing last month, the newspaper reported.

After that briefing, the subcommittee members wrote their letter to Panetta, suggesting that in recent years not enough money and attention has been paid to America’s missile defense system.

“We … believe it is now critically important that the administration immediately reprioritize the defense of the homeland,” the letter said.

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, reportedly issued a statement calling for tougher sanctions on North Korea because of its efforts to develop long-range missiles.

“New reports that North Korea is producing long-range ballistic missiles which can be mounted on vehicles show that the threat is becoming even more severe,” she was quoted as saying by the Yonhap News Agency. “And as the North Korea threat grows, so do other threats. North Korea is a legendary proliferator, and you can be certain that the regime will not keep its technological advances to itself, but share with the likes of Iran and Syria.”

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