SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea's latest missile launches are a demonstration of the country's avowed ability to use nuclear force against South Korea and the mainland U.S. How immediate is that threat?
North Korea claims its nuclear forces are capable of destroying its rivals, and often follows its provocative weapons tests with launch details. But many foreign experts call the North’s claims propaganda and suggest that the country is not yet capable of hitting the United States or its allies with a nuclear weapon.
There’s no question that North Korea has nuclear bombs, and that it has missiles that place the U.S. mainland, South Korea and Japan within striking distance. What’s not yet clear is whether the country has mastered the tricky engineering required to join the bombs and the missiles.
North Korea has demonstrated that it has missiles that could fly far enough to reach deep into the continental U.S., but it's not clear whether they can survive re-entering the Earth's atmosphere on arrival.
North Korea said it launched a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile on Saturday to verify the weapon’s reliability and the combat readiness of the country’s nuclear forces. It’s one of three kinds of ICBMs the country has developed, along with the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-17. All three are liquid-fueled, and North Korea has portrayed them all as nuclear-capable.
Launched almost straight up to avoid the territories of neighbors, the weapon reached a maximum altitude of about 5,770 kilometers (3,585 miles) and flew 990 kilometers (615 miles), according to North Korean state media. The reported flight details suggest the missile could travel 13,000 kilometers (8,080 miles) or beyond if launched on a normal trajectory.
“These days, North Korea has been disclosing information about its launches in a very detailed manner to try to let others believe what they’ve done is genuine,” analyst Shin Jong-woo at South Korea’s Defense and Security Forum said. “But I think that’s part of their propaganda.”
There are questions on whether North Korea has acquired the technology to shield warheads from the high-temperature, high-stress environment of atmospheric re-entry.
A South Korean biennial defense document released last week said it’s not clear whether the missiles can survive re-entry, because all of North Korea’s ICBM tests have so far been made on high angles.
Lee Choon Geun, an honorary research fellow at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute, said a normal trajectory would cause greater stress, as a warhead would spend a longer time passing through altitudes with high air density.
North Korean state media said the launch was made “suddenly” after a surprise order from leader Kim Jong Un.
“The Kim regime’s claims of short-notice launches are thus intended to demonstrate not only the development of strategic and tactical nuclear forces but also the operational capability to use them,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said.
In a military parade earlier this month, North Korea showcased around a dozen ICBMs, an unprecedented number that suggested progress in its efforts to mass-produce powerful weapons.
Among them were huge canister-sealed missiles that experts say were likely a version of a solid-fuel ICBM that North Korea has been trying to develop in recent years. Solid-fueled systems allow missiles to be mobile on the ground and make them faster to launch.
North Korea likely has dozens of nuclear warheads. The question is whether they are small enough to fit on a missile.
North Korea has so far performed six underground nuclear test explosions to manufacture warheads that it can place on missiles. Outside estimates of the number of North Korean nuclear warheads vary widely, ranging from 20-60 to up to about 115.