After a two-month hiatus, North Korea tested a long-range missile Wednesday that it said could strike “the whole mainland of the U.S.” North Korea has made significant progress in its nuclear program, but it is prone to exaggeration. What should we believe?
Can North Korean missiles reach Washington, D.C.?
Probably. North Korea’s latest test shows it has made huge strides extending the range of its intercontinental ballistic missiles, which now could probably reach targets on the East Coast of the United States easily.
Based on the missile’s trajectory and time in flight, experts such as David Wright at the Union of Concerned Scientists calculate that Wednesday’s launch could travel 8,100 miles. Washington is about 6,800 miles from Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. Scientists don’t know for sure because the maximum distance has not actually been flown yet.
During tests the North Koreans shoot missiles high into the atmosphere to measure their range to ashore they land harmlessly in the sea and avoid striking a real target thousands of miles away. Wednesday’s test, which reached an altitude of about 2,800 miles and covered a distance of about 600 miles, the highest yet, and convinced scientists that North Korea now has Washington within its range. North Korea would fire the missile on a flatter, or lower, trajectory to reach its target if it launched an actual attack.
Can North Korea place a nuclear weapon on these long-range missiles?
Better news here. The key obstacle for the North Koreans is the issue of re-entry. The warhead would have to withstand heat and massive vibrations as the “reentry vehicle” comes back into the Earth’s atmosphere. Most analysts think the North Koreans have yet to master this.
A July 28 North Korean missile test appeared to show a failure of the re-entry vehicle, though even that is a qualified conclusion. The high trajectory may have put extra stress on the re-entry that wouldn’t occur during an attack. “It may have responded differently if it were tested at a normal trajectory,” said Karl Dewey, an analyst at IHS Markit, a London-based research company. Dewey said it is unclear if a North Korean nuclear payload could even withstand the rigors of a long flight.
Can the United States defend against a missile attack?
The United States would probably not have a problem defending against a single missile launched toward the mainland, though the challenge becomes more difficult when trying to defend against multiple missiles.
The U.S. military has 36 ground-based interceptors in California and Alaska designed to defend the mainland. The Pentagon plans to add another eight interceptors, which have proven effective in tests.
The U.S. also has missile defense systems in Asia, including ship-based radar and interceptors and THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) systems, which are deployed in South Korea and the U.S. territory Guam. Spurred by the North Korean threat, the Pentagon is looking for new ways to beef up its missile defense.
Can the U.S. convince North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear program?
Experts are skeptical. Kim has said repeatedly that he needs a nuclear-strike capability to deter any military moves by the U.S. to topple his dictatorial regime.
There also is a political motive behind Kim’s drive. The nuclear program is “a point of great national pride,” said Sheila Miyoshi Jager, a professor at Oberlin College and author of Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea. “The fact that North Korea has been able to join the exclusive nuclear club, and that it rankles a big superpower like the United States … is a huge rallying point of pride for the North Korean people, which Kim needs to shore up his regime,” she said. “Why would Kim ever want to give this up?”
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