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Could North Korea hit the US with a missile?

Assessing North Korea's military capabilities has taken on new urgency in the face of renewed threats from the Pyongyang regime. Some question how big the threat really is, but concern still exists.

In this December 2012 file image made from video, North Korea's Unha-3 rocket lifts off from the Sohae launching station in Tongchang-ri, North Korea. North Korea's top governing body warned Thursday, Jan. 24, that the regime will conduct its third nuclear test in defiance of United Nations punishment, and made clear that its long-range rockets are designed to carry not only satellites but also warheads aimed at striking the United States.

KRT via AP Video/AP/File

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Could North Korea hit the United States with a ballistic missile? Could it mount a nuclear warhead on the tip of that missile?

The short answers to these questions are “in theory maybe, in practice probably not” and “no, not yet.” Longer answers revolve around the fact that experts in and outside the US intelligence community have struggled for decades to understand North Korea’s weapons programs and geopolitical intent.

Yet North Korea’s current and future military capabilities are among the most profound national security issues facing the US. They’ve taken on a new urgency this week in the face of renewed threats from the secretive Pyongyang regime. A launcher-rattling statement from North Korea on Thursday described the US as its “sworn enemy” and announced plans for a third nuclear test and more tests of long-range missiles in the months ahead.

“Settling accounts with the US needs to be done with force, not with words as it regards jungle law as the rule of its survival,” said the statement from North Korea’s National Defense Commission.

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.”


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