Skeptics of North Korea’s nuclear threat, and there are many, have long clung to two comforting thoughts.
While the North has the bomb, it doesn’t have a warhead small enough to put on a long-range rocket. And it certainly doesn’t have a re-entry vehicle to keep that warhead from burning up in the atmosphere before it could reach a target like, as it has suggested before, Manhattan.
North Korea on Tuesday suggested it will soon show the world it has mastered both technologies.
That would require a huge jump in the North’s suspected nuclear capabilities, so it may be just the latest case of Pyongyang saying with vitriolic propaganda something it cannot demonstrate in tests. But if it delivers, it will put to rest one other comforting thought: that it’s safe for policymakers in Washington and elsewhere to take North Korea’s claims as mainly just bluster.
“We have proudly acquired the re-entry technology, possessed by a few countries styling themselves as military powers, by dint of self-reliance and self-development,” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was quoted as saying. The authoritarian country’s state-run media reported he made the comment after meeting scientists and technicians, following what it said was a successful ground test of a re-entry vehicle.
The report said Kim ordered the commencement of preparations for a “nuclear warhead explosion test” and test-firings of “several kinds of ballistic rockets able to carry nuclear warheads” to be conducted soon.
As with all such reports, it’s hard to separate Pyongyang’s wishful thinking from the current reality.
North Korea’s most likely candidate for an intercontinental ballistic missile is generally known as the KN-08 — in North Korea it’s called the Hwasong. The three-stage rocket has an estimated range of 5,000-6,000 kilometers (3,100-3,700 miles), longer if modified further.
That range would be ample for attacks on U.S. military bases in Japan, but not the U.S. mainland. A militarized version of the rocket used to put a North Korean satellite into orbit last month is believed to have — potentially — a much longer range that could reach the U.S.
A new version of the KN-08 was displayed at a military parade in October. IHS Jane’s Defense weekly said it featured a smaller and blunter warhead shape “that could confirm U.S. intelligence assessments and North Korean claims of success in miniaturizing its nuclear warheads.”
But the Pentagon has often expressed incredulity over the reliability of the KN-08 because North Korea has never tested it “end-to-end” — meaning from launch through re-entry and warhead delivery — to prove it works. Read more