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Could North Korea hit the US with a missile?

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When it comes to ballistic missile capabilities, official US intelligence comments about North Korea tend to be fairly bland.

“North Korea continues to pursue the development, production and deployment of ballistic missiles with increasing range and sophistication,” judges a 2012 unclassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to Congress on threatening technology developments, for instance.

Yet sometimes top officials sound more concerned in their public statements. In January, a few weeks after North Korea had successfully placed a satellite in orbit with the Unha-3 space-launch variant of its longest-range missile, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told American troops, “North Korea just fired a missile. It’s an intercontinental ballistic missile, for God sakes. That means they have the capability to strike the United States.”

Secretary Panetta’s predecessor, Robert Gates, before he left office, warned that North Korea would have missiles capable of reaching the continental US by 2015 or 2016. US officials have also talked about a new, road-mobile North Korean missile that may or may not have intercontinental capabilities.

In theory, a ballistic missile based on the Unha rocket would be able to deliver a nuclear warhead-sized payload as far as Alaska, Hawaii, or part of the Lower 48, according to an analysis from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.

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