It wasn’t a big surprise, but it was a big deal — so much so that North Korea issued commemorative stamps. Two successful missile launches in July almost certainly proved that the country had produced an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the United States. A Nov. 29 test that flew even higher and longer indicated that the entire U.S. mainland most likely was within range.
According to U.S. intelligence analysts, the country also has nuclear warheads small enough to fit on its missiles. On Sept. 2, the country tested its most powerful nuclear device yet, a blast seven times the size of the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima.
Nonproliferation experts had long assumed that the secretive country’s nuclear capability was further along than many people wanted to believe, but seeing the proof was still jarring.
North Korea has launched 20 missile tests in 2017, and 15 were successful, according to a database maintained by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. The tests represented giant leaps forward in technology.
The missile tested in May was an intermediate-range projectile that on a more horizontal trajectory could probably reach Guam, according to physicist David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program. On Aug. 8 and 9, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un threatened to attack Guam, a key U.S. air and naval site, after President Trump warned of “fire and fury” if North Korea made more threats.
The missiles tested in July were the ones the world had been dreading: two-stage Hwasong-14 ICBMs that appeared quite capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. A two-stage rocket has a second fuel supply that takes over when the first burns out, allowing it to fly farther than a single-stage rocket.
Wright calculated that, depending on fuel, the weight of a warhead and the rotation of Earth, the first ICBM would have been able to reach Alaska. The second may have been able to reach New York and Boston.
And the November test of a new Hwasong-15 flew eight minutes longer and almost 500 miles higher than the previous ICBM. Wright calculated that on a flatter trajectory, it probably could’ve flown 8,100 miles, more than far enough to reach anywhere in the United States.
Kim’s goal has always been to create a credible, long-range nuclear threat to the U.S. mainland to deter the United States from obliterating his regime.
His propaganda is not subtle.
For instance, during an April concert celebrating North Korea’s founding father and Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the country unveiled a video that showed its missiles blowing up San Francisco. Other clues indicate that high-priority targets could be strategic military sites rather than population centers.
A 2013 photo accompanying a media report threatening the United States showed Kim with military officers in what looks like a situation room, surrounded by several maps and lists of U.S. installations.
|Analysis of this 2013 North Korean image shows potential targets in the United States.|
One of those maps clearly showed four lines originating from somewhere in Asia. One ended at Honolulu, home to U.S. Pacific Command and the USS Cheyenne submarine, which can launch long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles. The second ended in Southern California, probably San Diego, the Pacific Fleet’s home port. A third went to Washington. The end point of the fourth line is obscured by an officer’s hat, but analysts suspect it could be Barksdale, La., home to Air Force Global Strike Command, which conducts long-range bomber missions.
The recent successful missile tests do not prove that North Korea has a flawless system, said Catherine Dill, senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California. No one outside North Korea knows whether Kim has a viable reentry vehicle that could deliver a warhead to a target. Dill said grainy video of the July 28 test may show the missile burning up on reentry into the atmosphere, although she said that could have been because it went so much higher than a normal trajectory in the first place.
Wright said the Nov. 28 ICBM was likely carrying a light dummy warhead, which would weigh much less than a real nuclear warhead. A heavier payload reduces a missile’s range.
But these successful tests do change the political conversation about how to deal with North Korea. “They have reached these very technical milestones, so it’s not like we can stop them from reaching those milestones now,” Dill said. “It’s a lot more tangible now.”
Aaron Stekelberg and Tim Meko contributed to this report.
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey; Joshua Pollack, editor of Nonproliferation Review; Scott LaFoy, Imagery & Ballistic Missile Analyst, Arms Control Wonk & NK News. Information from Defense Department’s Base Structure Report (2015); Missile Defense Agency; Rand Corp. report “Overseas Basing of U.S. Military Forces” (2012); Army; Google Earth; population data from European Commission Joint Research Center (JRC).
Originally published Aug. 10, 2017.
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