Three scientists and experts on missile technology write in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that reports that North Korea’s latest missile test means they can now hit the continental United States are false. They analyze those claims in great detail.
Within hours, the news of the launch was trumpeted by the US mainstream press: North Korea had flown an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a missile that could carry nuclear warheads to Anchorage, Alaska, and to the continental United States as well!
But the Western press apparently did not know one crucial fact: The rocket carried a reduced payload and, therefore, was able to reach a much higher altitude than would have been possible if it had instead carried the weight associated with the type of first-generation atomic bomb North Korea might possess. Experts quoted by the press apparently assumed that the rocket had carried a payload large enough to simulate the weight of such an atomic bomb, in the process incorrectly assigning a near-ICBM status to a rocket that was in reality far less capable.
Only three and a half weeks later, on July 28, there was a second launch of the same type of missile, this time at night, Korean time. The rocket flew approximately the same powered flight trajectory that it had on July 3 (or July 4 in North Korea), this time, however, reaching a higher altitude—a reported 3,725 kilometers. This longer flight path led to yet more unwarranted conclusions that the continental United States was now directly under threat of nuclear attack by North Korea. Actually, however, in this second case, by our calculations, the second stage of the so-called ICBM carried an even smaller payload and tumbled into the atmosphere at night over the Sea of Japan. The spectacular night-reentry of the rocket—what was almost certainly the heavy front-end of the nearly empty upper stage—created an impressive meteoric display that some experts mistook for the breakup of a failed warhead reentry vehicle…
In reality, the North Korean rocket fired twice last month—the Hwasong-14—is a “sub-level” ICBM that will not be able to deliver nuclear warheads to the continental United States. Our analysis shows that the current variant of the Hwasong-14 may not even be capable of delivering a first-generation nuclear warhead to Anchorage, Alaska, although such a possibility cannot be categorically ruled out. But even if North Korea is now capable of fabricating a relatively light-weight, “miniaturized” atomic bomb that can survive the extreme reentry environments of long-range rocket delivery, it will, with certainty, not be able to deliver such an atomic bomb to the lower 48 states of the United States with the rocket tested on July 3 and July 28.
But here’s the second thing: That doesn’t mean there isn’t a real threat here. There is. Whether they can do it now, 6 months from now or 10 years from now, at some point North Korea will manage to advance their missile technology enough to be able to reach the United States. That’s the whole reason they keep doing tests, because they are slowly and methodically building up to that inevitable result. That’s a serious problem. But it isn’t an imminent danger to us, which means it shouldn’t be used to justify launching military strikes. There is still time and space for diplomacy and other methods to deal with the problem.