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Could North Korea hit the US with a missile?

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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.

But previous launches of Unha-based rockets in 2006 and 2009 failed, raising questions about the technology’s reliability, CNS points out. In addition, it is a liquid-fueled rocket. This means it has to stand on the launchpad for hours, indeed days, for fueling. During that time it would be a sitting duck for attack.

“Although the Unha is clearly a step toward such a capability, it does not in itself represent a reliable system capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the continental United States,” CNS judges.

North Korea has carried out two nuclear weapons tests and now says it is planning a third. The ability to produce a nuclear explosion, however, is not nearly the same thing as the ability to produce a device small enough to fit on the top of a missile.

As noted in a recent Congressional Research Service report, it is possible that Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan provided North Korea with the same Chinese-based design for a small nuclear weapon that he provided to Libya and Iran. But most experts judge that North Korean scientists have yet to shrink their nuclear technology into a package small enough for missile delivery.

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