North Korea could soon have the ability to hit a major US city with a nuclear weapon, granting leader Kim Jong-un a chilling new influence over the west.
While launching a strike on the United States would prove deadly for North Korea, the technology could help deter an invasion and establish the North as a global military power.
Experts estimate North Korea could develop missiles capable of hitting the US as early as next year, and some suggest it already has them.
Here are some of the key technological challenges the North faces before reaching that goal, as reported by the New York Times.
North Korea could soon have the ability to hit a major US city with a nuclear weapon, granting leader Kim Jong-un a chilling new influence over the west. But the North still faces key technological challenges (pictured) before reaching that goal
A small enough bomb – probably already completed
Experts have long debated whether North Korea has developed a powerful nuclear bomb that is also small and light enough to fit into the nose cone of a missile.
The smaller and lighter the missile’s payload is, the further it can travel.
Last year, officials released a press photo of Kim Jon-un next to what appeared to be a small, shiny bomb.
The bomb appeared to be around two-feet wide, making it small enough to fit inside an ICBM warhead.
North Korean said in July it had successfully tested (pictured) an intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time
While we can’t know whether the photo shows a real missile, a mock-up or a fake designed to strike fear in the west, nuclear experts say that the North likely has succeeded in making a small enough nuclear bomb to fit inside an ICBM.
Joshua Pollack, a leading expert on nuclear missile proliferation, told the New York Times: ‘Any country that has conducted five nuclear tests can probably do it.
‘I give them the benefit of the doubt.’
While launching a strike on the United States would prove deadly for North Korea, the technology could help deter an invasion and establish the North as a global military power. Pictured is North Korea leader Kim Jong-un during an ICBM test in July
NORTH KOREA’S ICBM PROGRAMME
The intercontinental ballistic missiles North Korea tested in July are likely capable of reaching 3,400 miles (5,500 km).
Pyongyang is subject to multiple sets of United Nations sanctions over its atomic and missile programs, which it says it needs to protect itself against a possible invasion.
It regularly issues bloodcurdling threats against its ‘imperialist enemy’ Washington, and has long sought a rocket capable of delivering a warhead to the continental United States.
The progress has accelerated especially after young leader Kim Jong-Un took power following the death of his father, longtime ruler Kim Jong-Il, in 2011.
Pyongyang has staged five atomic tests – including two last year – with the regime stepping up efforts to produce a nuclear warhead small enough to fit into a missile.
Surviving re-entry – expected next year
Building a missile warhead that can withstand the extreme heat and forces of atmospheric re-entry is exceptionally difficult.
Upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere from space, warheads will travel as fast as four miles (6.5 km) per second.
The friction against the planet’s atmosphere that this generates means that poorly designed warheads will burn up long before they reach their target.
Experts estimate North Korea could develop missiles capable of hitting the US as early as next year, and some suggest it already has them. It currently does not have missiles capable of re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere, but should have developed the technology by 2019
Some ICBMs are coated with thick materials to create a shield that deflects heat into the missile’s wake.
But the forces at work are so great that even the slightest production fault can lead to uneven burns that throw the missile off-target.
Experts claim that if North Korea keeps up its current rate of missile testing, it will likely have a warhead capable of re-entry by next year.
North Korea successfully tested two Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) in July this year. Experts say the second of these tests appeared capable of reaching the US West Coast, with major cities Denver and Chicago potentially in range
Reaching the US mainland – probably already completed
HOW FAR WOULD A MISSILE HAVE TO TRAVEL FROM PYONG YANG TO HIT MAJOR CITIES?
US Naval Base in Guam: 2,114 miles (3,402 km)
Hawaii: 4,727 miles (7,670 km)
London (over mainland Europe): 5,379 miles (8,657 km)
San Francisco: 5,588 miles (8,993 km)
Los Angeles: 5,935 miles (9,551 km)
New York: 6,783 miles (10,916 km)
Washington, DC: 6,857 miles (11,035 km)
North Korea successfully tested two Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) in July this year.
Experts say the second of these tests appeared capable of reaching the US West Coast, with major cities Denver and Chicago potentially in range.
The missile reached an altitude of about 1,900 miles (3,000km) and landed in the sea off Japan.
The tests follow years of rejected long-distance models and empty claims made by North Korean officials.
A powerful new engine design is likely behind the sudden technological advances seen this year, making the North’s missiles more durable and reliable than ever before.
It potentially puts the US in range of North Korean missiles for the first time since the country began building long-range missiles in 1984.
Better accuracy – good enough but not perfect
Accurately guiding a missile halfway around the world is no easy task, and North Korea’s aim has historically been poor.
Countries with advanced ICBM programmes can consistently hit within 200 metres (650 ft) of a target.
Estimates put North Korea’s ICBM accuracy closer to a 3-5 kilometre (2-3 mile) range, though this figure is difficult to confirm as most of the nation’s missiles land in the ocean, and analysts know little of their designated targets.
Last year, officials released a press photo of Kim Jon-un next to what appeared to be a small, shiny bomb (pictured). The bomb appeared to be around two-feet wide, making it small enough to fit inside an ICBM warhead
But despite the North’s inferior accuracy, ‘that’s good enough if you’re aiming at a city,’ Ian Williams, a missile defence expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, told the New York Times.
North Korea will have to improve the accuracy of its missiles if it wishes to reliably hit smaller targets, such as military bases, Mr Williams said.
Experts say that while North Korea currently uses a cheap, blunt warhead that limits speed and accuracy, it appears to be developing more streamlined, conical warheads.
INTERCONTINENTAL BALLISTIC MISSILES
An intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is a guided ballistic missile with a minimum range of 3,400 miles (5,500 km) – further than any other missile.
ICBM missiles were first developed during World War II, and countries around the world have now worked to create their own missiles and defence systems against them.
ICBM launches have three distinct phases of flight.
During the boost phase, a rocket launches the warhead at high speeds above the atmosphere, where it continues in free-fall through the vacuum of space.
The second, ‘midcourse’ phase begins with the rocket separating from the warhead, which continues unguided and unpowered, hundreds of miles above the Earth.
The reentry, or terminal, phase sees the warhead descend at high speeds back through the Earth’s atmosphere toward the ground.
The missiles are primarily designed for nuclear weapons delivery, though they can also be used to deliver conventional, chemical or biological weapons.
The isolated, impoverished country has made great progress in its missile capabilities since the ascension to power of Kim (pictured), who has overseen three nuclear tests and multiple rocket launches
Get past US anti-missile defences – nobody knows
An anti-missile system has never been used on an ICBM beyond choreographed tests, and even then the costly systems have often missed their mock targets.
If North Korea were to fire three or four ICBMs at the same US city, security systems would likely be overwhelmed and miss at least one of the incoming warheads.
Analysts say the North is currently looking to improve its ICBMs’ anti-missile system penetrative abilities.
In March it fired four missiles in a salvo, which would make it extremely difficult for US systems to shoot every missile down.
North Korea recently displayed a missile warhead that had fins, suggesting it is investing in ICBMs that can zigzag through the air to avoid defence systems.
Despite the imperfect accuracy of North Korea’s latest test missiles (pictured), they are likely good enough to reliably hit a major US city provided they can make the distance
A more powerful bomb – much more work needed
Based on nuclear detonations at North Korea’s underground test sites, experts say Kim Jong-un currently possesses bombs with the same destructive power as the Hiroshima nuclear explosion.
The bomb destroyed an entire city and killed 70,000 people with its initial blast, with tens of thousands more following as a result of radioactive fallout.
Making a more powerful ICBM than this that is still small and lightweight requires thermonuclear fuel, which would upgrade North Korea’s arsenal into hydrogen bombs.
Based on nuclear detonations at North Korea’s underground test sites, experts say Kim Jong-un currently possesses bombs with the same destructive power as the Hiroshima nuclear explosion. Pictured is the world’s first nuclear bomb, ‘the gadget’, tested in August 1945
This would be extremely difficult to achieve, but could produce weapons with up to 1,000 times the destructive power of the North’s current warheads.
North Korea has shown great interest in developing hydrogen bombs, but experts are clueless as to how far off they are from developing one.
The clearest indicator would be the detection of a very large underground blast from one of the North’s testing sites.
NORTH KOREA’S MISSILE DEVELOPMENT: A TIMELINE
North Korea on Tuesday said it had tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, as its decades-long weapons program reached a grave new phase.
Here are key dates in Pyongyang’s quest to develop a missile capable of hitting the United States:
Late 1970s: Starts working on a version of the Soviet Scud-B (range 300 kilometres or 186 miles). Test-fired in 1984
1987-92: Begins developing variant of Scud-C (500 km), Rodong-1 (1,300 km), Taepodong-1 (2,500 km), Musudan-1 (3,000 km) and Taepodong-2 (6,700 km)
Aug 1998: Test-fires Taepodong-1 over Japan as part of failed satellite launch
Sept 1999: Declares moratorium on long-range missile tests amid improving ties with US
July 12, 2000: Fifth round of US-North Korean missile talks ends without agreement after North demands $1 billion a year in return for halting missile exports
March 3, 2005: North ends moratorium on long-range missile testing, blames Bush administration’s ‘hostile’ policy
July 5, 2006: North test-fires seven missiles, including a long-range Taepodong-2 which explodes after 40 seconds
Oct 9, 2006: North conducts underground nuclear test, its first
April 5, 2009: North Korea launches long-range rocket which flies over Japan and lands in the Pacific, in what it says is an attempt to put a satellite into orbit. The United States, Japan and South Korea see it as a disguised test of a Taepodong-2
May 25, 2009: North conducts its second underground nuclear test, several times more powerful than the first
April 13, 2012: North launches what it has said is a long-range rocket to put a satellite into orbit, but it disintegrates soon after blast-off
December 12, 2012: North launches a multi-stage rocket and successfully places an Earth observational satellite in orbit
February 12, 2013: Conducts its third underground nuclear test
January 6, 2016: North conducts its fourth underground nuclear test, which it says was of a hydrogen bomb — a claim doubted by most experts
March 9, 2016: Kim Jong-Un claims the North has successfully miniaturised a thermo-nuclear warhead
April 23, 2016: North test-fires a submarine-launched ballistic missile
July 8, 2016: US and South Korea announce plans to deploy an advanced missile defence system — THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense)
August 3, 2016: North Korea fires a ballistic missile directly into Japan’s maritime economic zone for the first time
September 9, 2016: Fifth nuclear test
March 6, 2017: North fires four ballistic missiles in what it says is an exercise to hit US bases in Japan
March 7, 2017: US begins deploying THAAD missile defence system in South Korea
May 14, 2017: North fires a ballistic missile which flies 700 kilometres before landing in the Sea of Japan. Analysts say it has an imputed range of 4,500 kilometres and brings Guam within reach
July 4, 2017: North Korea test-fires a ballistic missile which flies 930 kilometres before landing in the Sea of Japan. Analysts say it has an imputed range of 6,700 kilometres and brings Alaska within reach. Pyongyang later says it was a ‘landmark’ test of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).