Is North Korea equipped to attack the United States?

        Science | Explosives
A former South Korean secret commando wearing a North Korean military uniform holds a placard with a caricature of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il during a demonstration denouncing North Korea's nuclear testing.
A former South Korean secret commando wearing a North Korean military uniform holds a placard with a caricature of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il during a demonstration denouncing North Korea's nuclear testing.
Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

On October 11, 2006, the newly nuclear North Korea took its rhetoric up a notch when it threatened to attack the United States, which has been "pestering" the country ever since it conducted its internationally rattling nuclear test to declare itself a member of the club. North Korean officials are demanding a one-on-one meeting with the United States, but the latter refuses. Instead, the United States insists on multilateral talks and envisions harsh sanctions if North Korea doesn't cooperate. And North Korea has promised to launch a nuclear-tipped missile if the United States doesn't do something to solve the impasse. But does North Korea have the capabilities to carry out its threats against the United States?

Not really. And, yes, kind of.

There is actually no evidence that North Korea has a nuclear weapon, only that it has a nuclear device. A device capable of a nuclear explosion is one thing; delivering that device to a specific location by way of a missile is a whole different story. Most experts believe that North Korea has not yet developed the technology to weaponize its nuclear capability. It could presumably deliver a weapon by dropping it from a plane, but planes are relatively easy to shoot down before they near their target. North Korea's ability to shrink a nuclear device to the size necessary to fit it onto a missile is considered pretty much out of the question at this point in time.

Even if North Korea has weaponized its nuclear technology and can put a nuclear warhead onto a missile, the threat to U.S. territory is fairly minimal right now. North Korea does have long-range missiles theoretically capable of reaching the United States, but a test of that technology in the summer of 2006 was a complete failure. The country fired an intercontinental ballistic missile at U.S. states in the Pacific, but it exploded 40 seconds into its flight. Whether it was headed for Alaska or Hawaii is unclear.

But other countries are more at risk. See the next page to learn more.

Countries at Risk

But it's perfectly clear who is at risk: U.S. allies Japan and South Korea. While there is significant doubt that North Korea's long-range missiles can reach the United States, there is no doubt at all that its short-range missiles can reach its neighbors, both of whom are very friendly with the United States. Japan and South Korea are the most likely targets of North Korea's threats to take "physical measures" against the United States, whether those measures are conventional or nuclear. The U.S. military has significant assets in both countries, and analysts predict that a nuclear strike against Hong Kong could cripple U.S. international trade. And then there is the concern that has Washington truly concerned: North Korea sells its weapons to consumers who are not U.S. allies. Even the smallest nuclear bomb imaginable could lead to disastrous consequences in the hands of the wrong people. One of the sanctions the United States is pushing for as a response to North Korea's nuclear capability is a complete blockade of its imports and exports.

In response to the threat to U.S. allies and interests, the U.S. military is steadily increasing its forces in the Pacific. This deployment is made a lot more complicated by the two conflicts the U.S. is already involved in (Afghanistan and Iraq) and building up a presence to deal with the North Korean threat may prove to be a Herculean task. Key technologies like Predator unmanned aircraft systems are in short supply and are already in use in other parts of the world, and the United States doesn't have many troops to spare for the Pacific. The U.S. military already has Air Force bombers, Naval aircraft carriers and fighter jets, Patriot-missile installations and nuclear-equipped submarines positioned in the area, but supplying troops for a full-blown conflict could mean depleting resources on other fronts and longer tours for troops already deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even with North Korea's true nuclear capabilities in doubt and an arsenal of high-tech weaponry positioned at its doorstep, U.S. territory is not completely safe. Experts predict that unless North Korea is persuaded to dismantle its nuclear arsenal or some other country dismantles it by force, North Korea will be able to strike the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile within 10 years.

For more information on the North Korea crisis and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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