North Korea likely unable to reach US with nuke yet, experts say
How far along North Korea has come in miniaturizing nuclear warheads for use on intercontinental missiles depends on the target, experts say.
North Korea has been testing a medium-range intercontinental missile that could reach South Korea or Japan since the late 1980s, said Joel S. Wit, a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s U.S.-Korea Institute in Washington, D.C.
The country would have to be “pretty incompetent” to have not developed a warhead design for that missile type after so many years, he said.
Miniaturizing sufficiently for a long-range missile that could reach the U.S. is a different story.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who would say [North Korea] could [put one] on top of an ICBM — or at least no one I know,” Wit said. “It doesn’t exist in North Korea.”
Such a nuclear missile would require far more testing than North Korea has done. After several failed attempts, the country in late 2012 successfully launched its three-stage Unha-3 rocket, deploying a satellite in space that failed to work.
But as ballistic missile expert Michael Elleman noted in an analysis last year for the nonpartisan Arms Control Association, based in Washington, D.C., the technological requirements differ between a satellite rocket launch and a ballistic missile launch — particularly the need for a functional re-entry vehicle to keep the warhead from burning up while descending from space.
“Although space launch activities offer an opportunity to accumulate experience and generate data that could aid efforts to develop long-range ballistic missiles, the results have limited application to ballistic missiles,” Elleman wrote.
“Only a fraction of the overall missile development issues can be addressed when testing the system as a satellite launcher. Other requirements, most notably re-entry technologies and operational flexibility requirements, cannot be adequately addressed by satellite launches. A proven satellite launch vehicle would still need to be flight-tested as a ballistic missile a half-dozen or more times before it would be combat ready. For these reasons and others, the universal trend has been to convert ballistic missiles into space launchers, not the opposite, as evidenced by the Soviet, U.S., and Chinese experiences.”
Dr. William Wieninger, an expert on weapons of mass destruction at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, said the presumption is that North Korea will eventually develop a bomb about the size of the one used by the U.S. on Hiroshima in World War II, which would be small enough to mount on a rocket.
“The rocket would almost certainly have a very low accuracy,” he said. “A Hiroshima-sized warhead on a very inaccurate rocket is essentially a weapon of terror. It has very little military significance because they really can’t expect to hit what they’re shooting at.”
Historically, nuclear-armed intercontinental missiles have been a means of defense relying on threat of use. During the Cold War, NATO was able to leverage its conventional military force in Europe against a much larger Soviet military because NATO’s nuclear weapons assured mutual destruction.
Analysts generally agree that even though North Korea behaves erratically at times, it’s a rational regime that understands risk.
“The main reason that North Korea would not seriously consider using a nuclear weapon against the U.S. or South Korea is because they understand the consequences,” said Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association. “It would be the end of their regime. If there’s one thing that Kim Jong Un and his clique is interested in, it’s preserving their regime.”
An extensive 2012 analysis of North Korea’s nuclear missile threat by Markus Schiller with the Rand Corp. characterized the program as a “bluff.”
The program is a “paper tiger,” Schiller wrote, that “largely appears to be a political tool to gain strategic leverage, fortify the regime’s domestic power, and deter other countries … from military action.”