North Korea’s weapons are all aimed at the U.S. and pose no risks to its near neighbors a government spokesman said January 8, in a meeting that pivoted away from a long-standing isolationism that has stymied negotiations toward a permanent peace agreement between Pyongyang and its southern counterpart.
Pyongyang held talks with South Korea for the first time in two years this week, agreeing to send a delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in Seoul. The North Korean negotiators refused to discuss scaling down the country’s nuclear weapons program, saying the subject was not relevant as it posed no risk to their southern “brethren”.
While the weapons may be aimed at the U.S., after the latest weapons tests by Pyongyang in late November, experts told WikiTribune that questions remain about North Korea’s intercontinental weapons capability.
November 29: What does the latest ICBM tell us about North Korea’s nuclear capacity?
In late November, North Korea tested what it said was a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the mainland United States. Two experts interviewed by WikiTribune said it was a dangerous escalation but say important questions remain about Pyongyang’s ability to attach a nuclear payload to a missile and guide it to its target.
The missile reached an altitude of 2,800 miles and traveled 590 miles, according to The Washington Post, before landing in Japanese waters.
The launch comes two and a half months since Pyongyang claimed it tested a thermonuclear device, and just a week after President Donald Trump’s administration put North Korea back on a list of countries that the U.S. claims support terrorism.
Here’s what we know about the latest test and how it changes our understanding of the North Korean nuclear weapons program.
We interviewed two experts in nuclear proliferation to better understand the implications of the latest missile launch:
- Shannon N. Kile, senior researcher and head of the Nuclear Weapons Project of the SIPRI Arms Control and Non-proliferation Programme.
- Tom Plant, director of the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Program at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), an independent international defense and security think-tank.
What do we know about this new rocket?
Not much is known about the new missile, both experts said. But both agree that the Hwasong-15, as North Korea calls the rocket, seems to have a much longer range than its predecessor. It is “fairly substantial, quite a big increase over the last iteration,” Plant said. U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis acknowledged as much, saying the North Koreans were building “ballistic missiles that threaten everywhere in the world.”
But the missile “was probably carrying a lightweight mock-up warhead,” Kile said. “That means that if it were to deploy an operational nuclear warhead, which is much heavier, the range would be correspondingly reduced. So that’s why I think 13,000 kilometers [8078 miles] is probably the upper limit, but the actual operational range would be significantly lower.”
Plant and Kile both said they were unsure about whether the latest test genuinely represented a totally new category of rocket, or if it was an improvement of the Hwasong-14. Kile said it was “basically an advanced version of the Hwasong-14,” while Plant said that “it looks like it’s using approximately the same technology in slightly more effective ways.”
Could it be used for a nuclear attack on U.S. soil tomorrow?
There is simply not enough information in the public domain yet to know whether North Korea could launch an effective ICBM strike on the U.S. in the immediate future, according to Plant.
Crucially, there is no evidence to suggest that Pyongyang has developed a re-entry vehicle to carry a nuclear warhead to its target that is capable of withstanding the extreme temperatures produced by re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, according to The Washington Post.
Kile echoed that: “They’re mastering the boost-phase engine technology and also the stage-separation…Now, whether that also applied to, for example, the re-entry vehicle capabilities and the inflight guidance systems is not really possible to tell. Those are clearly important technical hurdles.”
But “the important thing here,” Kile said, “is that clearly North Korea is making rapid technical progress on a range of technologies needed to develop an operational ICBM.”
Is North Korea’s nuclear weapons program self-reliant?
“There’s no unanimous agreement, but I think the prevailing assessment is that North Korea has the ability to make the fuel and the engines with its own personnel and doesn’t have to import them,” said Kile of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Arms Control. If true, this would mean the country is no longer dependent on other nations to advance its nuclear weapons program.
Plant, of the Royal United Services Institute, was more slightly more circumspect about Pyongyang’s self-sufficiency.
“It’s a ‘no’ in that they still need to import bits and pieces. In terms of their own expertise though, their know-how… whether or not they have received it from elsewhere [in the past], I suspect they don’t need it anymore. It would always help them a lot… but I don’t think they need it, it would just be a case of speeding things up,” he said.
Could a North Korean ICBM be shot down before it reached its target?
No, in all likelihood. Although the U.S. has a ballistic missile defense system in place that could theoretically take out ICBMs before they reached their target, Kile said: “I think the general assessment is that the missile defense technology probably would not have a reliable probability of kill… The technology simply isn’t there yet.”
Is this more saber rattling, or is the risk real?
“I think everyone agrees that the dangers on the Korean Peninsula are growing and the risk of conflict is definitely rising,” Kile said. “This is not just the usual political polemics and bluster. Some of the comments – excluding what you hear from the press – made by other [U.S.] administration officials I think reflects that there’s been a fundamental shift in U.S. threat assessments of North Korean missile and nuclear programs.”
“I don’t think that anyone who thinks about it for more than five minutes wants to go to war in Korea,” Plant said. “Everybody knows what the negative consequences would be, and they would be catastrophic.