Hype vs reality: doubts North Korea can miniaturise nuclear weapon into missile nose cone
There are doubts whether North Korea has mastered technology needed for a nuclear weapon to survive the difficult re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere
If North Korea’s claim on Tuesday of its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test-launch is true, it has barrelled over a red line that the world has long called a trip-wire for potential nuclear disaster.
As always with North Korea, however, it is hard to tell how wide the gulf is between reality and rhetoric.
Analysts, for instance, believe the latest missile may be able to hit Alaska, a marked improvement on past efforts and potentially placing it in the intercontinental ballistic missile category, but far from backing North Korea’s claim it can now “strike anywhere on Earth”.
Sceptics will also ask how North Korea can claim mastery of such a complicated technology after only one test.
That said, the message from North Korea seems clear: if not stopped, it is now only a matter of time before one of the most dogged countries on Earth achieves its goal of being able to hit all parts of the United States.
Watch: North Korea claims successful ICBM test
Most outside and North Korean analyses of the missile’s height, distance and time in the air were roughly similar.
US, South Korean and Japanese officials said it flew for about 40 minutes and reached an altitude of 2,500 kilometres, which would be longer and higher than any similar North Korean test previously reported. It also covered a distance of about 930 kilometres.
North Korea said the Hwasong-14 missile flew as high as 2,802 kilometres before hitting a designated target in the ocean about 933 kilometres away from the launch site in the North’s northwest.
Russia’s military, however, said the missile flew considerably shorter and lower than others reported.
Before North Korea’s announcement of an ICBM, South Korean analysts said it was likely that it was a retest of one of two intermediate-range missiles launched earlier this year.
One US missile scientist, David Wright, estimated that the highly lofted missile, if the reported time and distance are correct, could have a possible maximum range of 6,700 kilometres, which could put Alaska in its range, if fired at a normal trajectory.
“That range would not be enough to reach the Lower 48 states or the large islands of Hawaii, but would allow it to reach all of Alaska.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said: “This launch clearly shows that the threat has grown.”
North Korea has, with single-minded determination, been devoting its best and brightest, and a huge amount of its tiny financial resources, to this goal for generations.
The pace has quickened dramatically under leader Kim Jong-un, who took over in 2011. Since late 2012, North Korea has placed two satellites into orbit with long-range rockets, which outsiders see as clandestine tests of missile technology.
Last year, North Korea conducted its fourth and fifth atomic bomb tests and claimed a series of technical missile and atomic breakthroughs.
After what North Korea said in March was a ground test of a new type of high-thrust rocket engine, Kim was quoted as saying that the “whole world will soon witness what eventful significance the great victory won today carries.”
Some doubt whether North Korea has mastered the technology needed to build a re-entry vehicle that is crucial for returning a warhead to the atmosphere from space so it could hit its intended target. Or whether North Korea can build a warhead small enough to fit on a long-range missile.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer of the British Armed Forces Joint Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Regiment, said that “in capability of missile terms and delivery, it is a major step up and they seem to be making progress week-on-week.”
He added, however, that “actually marrying the warhead to the missile is probably the biggest challenge, which they appear not to have progressed on.”
Chae Yeon-seok, a professor at South Korea’s University of Science and Technology, said radar and satellites can track a missile’s flight but not the specifics of the missile’s technology.
“We cannot verify if a warhead lands in the ocean without any problem,” he said.
North Korea, whose ethos of self-reliance is akin to a national religion, has for decades sought to build weapons that can combat US and South Korean “hostility.”
Nothing has stopped the country’s tenacious progress – not sanctions, not threats, not diplomacy.
A US and South Korean attack would end North Korea’s ruling class, but it would also kill huge numbers of South Koreans who live an easy drive from the world’s most heavily armed border.
China’s ambassador to the UN warned on Monday that “the consequences would be disastrous” if the US and North Korea failed to resume talks.
“We cannot afford to wait for too long before dialogue” Liu Jieyi told reporters in New York.
This means that without finding the right solution, it may only be a matter of time before reality matches North Korea’s propaganda, which on Tuesday called the test the “final step toward completing the nation’s nuclear military strength.”
“I hope North Korea will not cross the bridge of no return,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in said.
Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg, Kyodo