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.
(Page 2 of 2)
But previous launches of Unha-based rockets in 2006 and 2009 failed, raising questions about the technology’s reliability, CNS points out. In addition, it is a liquid-fueled rocket. This means it has to stand on the launchpad for hours, indeed days, for fueling. During that time it would be a sitting duck for attack.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Inside North Korea: more circus than bread
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
“Although the Unha is clearly a step toward such a capability, it does not in itself represent a reliable system capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the continental United States,” CNS judges.
North Korea has carried out two nuclear weapons tests and now says it is planning a third. The ability to produce a nuclear explosion, however, is not nearly the same thing as the ability to produce a device small enough to fit on the top of a missile.
As noted in a recent Congressional Research Service report, it is possible that Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan provided North Korea with the same Chinese-based design for a small nuclear weapon that he provided to Libya and Iran. But most experts judge that North Korean scientists have yet to shrink their nuclear technology into a package small enough for missile delivery.
North Korean officials have long talked with bellicosity unmatched in geostrategic circles. Some say that when it comes to their nuclear missile programs, this chest thumping is largely a bluff – pro wrestling drama translated for an international stage.
Their past missile tests have been maximized to give the appearance of performance, and they have never exploded an actual nuclear warhead design, according to RAND analyst Markus Schiller.
Thus concerns about their missile tests are overblown, wrote Mr. Schiller in a lengthy 2012 report on North Korea’s missile programs.
“Every launch further depletes the limited North Korean arsenals, and North Korea gains no real experience from these events. Since the purpose of the launches seems to be political, the United States and other nations should downplay or even ignore them,” he writes.
Not all experts are so sanguine.
For instance, the South Korean Navy has managed to retrieve first-stage debris from North Korea’s December Unha-3 launch, and certain aspects of the space junk appear to reflect novel North Korean use of foreign-obtained technology.
The engine, for instance, appears to have new and slightly unexpected technological additions, such as the ability to steer with small auxiliary engines instead of jet vanes.
The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday condemning December's rocket launch.
North Korea is not Iraq, whose ballistic missiles turned out to be cruder than US intelligence expected, points out Jeffrey Lewis, director of the CNS East Asia Nonproliferation Program, on the Arms Control Wonk blog.
“There has been a tendency to underestimate what North Korea can do in the space and missile field, and possibly with technology in general,” Mr. Lewis writes.