Could North Korea hit the US with a missile?
Assessing North Korea's military capabilities has taken on new urgency in the face of renewed threats from the Pyongyang regime. Some question how big the threat really is, but concern still exists.
Could North Korea hit the United States with a ballistic missile? Could it mount a nuclear warhead on the tip of that missile?Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Inside North Korea: more circus than bread
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The short answers to these questions are “in theory maybe, in practice probably not” and “no, not yet.” Longer answers revolve around the fact that experts in and outside the US intelligence community have struggled for decades to understand North Korea’s weapons programs and geopolitical intent.
Yet North Korea’s current and future military capabilities are among the most profound national security issues facing the US. They’ve taken on a new urgency this week in the face of renewed threats from the secretive Pyongyang regime. A launcher-rattling statement from North Korea on Thursday described the US as its “sworn enemy” and announced plans for a third nuclear test and more tests of long-range missiles in the months ahead.
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“Settling accounts with the US needs to be done with force, not with words as it regards jungle law as the rule of its survival,” said the statement from North Korea’s National Defense Commission.
When it comes to ballistic missile capabilities, official US intelligence comments about North Korea tend to be fairly bland.
“North Korea continues to pursue the development, production and deployment of ballistic missiles with increasing range and sophistication,” judges a 2012 unclassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to Congress on threatening technology developments, for instance.
Yet sometimes top officials sound more concerned in their public statements. In January, a few weeks after North Korea had successfully placed a satellite in orbit with the Unha-3 space-launch variant of its longest-range missile, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told American troops, “North Korea just fired a missile. It’s an intercontinental ballistic missile, for God sakes. That means they have the capability to strike the United States.”
Secretary Panetta’s predecessor, Robert Gates, before he left office, warned that North Korea would have missiles capable of reaching the continental US by 2015 or 2016. US officials have also talked about a new, road-mobile North Korean missile that may or may not have intercontinental capabilities.
In theory, a ballistic missile based on the Unha rocket would be able to deliver a nuclear warhead-sized payload as far as Alaska, Hawaii, or part of the Lower 48, according to an analysis from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.