US intelligence officials are pretty sure North Korea can put a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental missile that could reach America, but experts aren’t convinced the bomb could make it all that way intact.
They cite lingering questions about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear know-how.
“I don’t think North Korea has a good measure of how accurate the missile is at this point,” said Michael Elleman, an expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“They don’t know if the re-entry technologies will really hold up — whether the bomb will survive the trip.”
North Korea has short-range missiles that can hit its neighbors. It has tested an intermediate one that could strike Guam, a US territory, as well as a longer-range missile that could reach Hawaii and perhaps the US West Coast. The intermediate and long-range missiles are still being developed and it’s still questionable whether they can reliably strike targets.
The North must conduct more tests to master what is known as “re-entry” in missile parlance, experts believe. The process involves shielding a nuclear warhead from the high temperatures and force it faces when it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere at about seven kilometers a second.
“In principle, Kim Jong Un could hit the United States with a nuclear weapon,” said Mr Elleman, a former scientist at Lockheed Martin’s Research and Development Laboratory who also worked as missile expert for UN weapons inspection missions.
“In practice, I think they are probably a half-year to a full year away from having something that will work more often than it would fail.”
Joseph Bermudez Jr., an internationally recognized expert on North Korean defense and intelligence affairs and ballistic missile development, agrees.
“Putting these things all together and making them work is extremely challenging, and they haven’t yet demonstrated a capability to produce a reliable re-entry vehicle, which is what houses the actual nuclear device,” he said.
“Remember, they’ve only tested these systems very few times.”
Still, Mr Bermudez, said, North Korea is “on track” to figure it out.
US officials also think it’s just a matter of time before Kim’s program fully matures.
On Tuesday, a news report said North Korea could now wed nuclear warheads with its missiles, including its longest-range ones that might be able to hit the continental US.
The nuclear advances were detailed in an official Japanese assessment and in a story by The Washington Post that cited US intelligence officials and a confidential Defense Intelligence Agency report.
President Donald Trump is warning North Korea not to make any more threats or face “fire and fury like the world has never seen”.
North Korea then announced a detailed plan to launch missiles toward the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, a major military hub and home to US bombers.
On Friday, Trump tweeted: “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.”
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