Is North Korea Equipped to Attack the United States?

By: Julia Layton & Sarah Gleim  | 

A South Korean soldier watches TV footage of North Korea's July 2017 test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the country's second ICBM test demonstrated its ability to strike the United States. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
A South Korean soldier watches TV footage of North Korea's July 2017 test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the country's second ICBM test demonstrated its ability to strike the United States. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

In August 2017, North Korea and Kim Jong Un brought the world to the brink of nuclear war when Kim threatened to attack the U.S. territory of Guam. At the time, former President Donald Trump answered the North Korean leader by saying he'd respond with "fire and fury like the world has never seen" if Kim continued to intimidate the United States and its allies.

Rhetoric between the two leaders lasted for days while citizens of Guam and other nations worried if Kim actually had the capability to launch a nuclear attack on its neighbors, let alone had a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on to a missile that could reach the United States.

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But four years later, the United States has a new president — Joe Biden — and analysis completed in July 2017 by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency shows that North Korea has produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could fit inside its missiles. But do those missiles have the capability of reaching the United States? And is the rogue state on the verge of testing more missiles after being silent since Kim himself declared its nuclear mission a success in April 2018?

It's quite possible. "North Korea traditionally has done some kind of strongly provocative action early in both U.S. and South Korean new administrations," Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told CNN.

new ICBM
A man in South Korea watches a broadcast of the October 2020 military parade in Pyongyang commemorating the 75th anniversary of North Korea's ruling Workers Party. During the parade, North Korea unveiled a much larger, never-before-seen ICBM (seen here).
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

Bigger Solid-fuel ICBMs

What's more, North Korea also appears to have a much larger ICBM than ever before. "In October 2020, North Korea unveiled a new ICBM considerably larger and presumably more capable than the systems they tested in 2017, further increasing the threat posed to our homeland," Air Force General Glen VanHerck said in a statement before the Armed Services Committee March 16, 2021. "The North Korean regime has also indicated that it is no longer bound by the unilateral nuclear and ICBM testing moratorium announced in 2018, suggesting that Kim Jong Un may begin flight testing an improved ICBM design in the near future." The move, he said, would increase tensions between Pyongyang and Washington. The ICBM VanHerck is referring to is a solid-fuel ICBM North Korea displayed at a military parade in October 2020.

Since 2006, North Korea has tested nuclear explosive devices in 2006, 2009, 2013, twice in 2016 and once in 2017. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the DPRK is also capable of enriching uranium and producing weapons-grade plutonium, and believed to possess biological and chemical weapons.

The regime also successfully tested three intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), two Hwasong-14s, and one Hwasong-15 that could potentially reach the United States. The first Hwasong-14 test was July 4, 2017, which North Korea's state media said flew 580 miles (933 kilometers), reached an altitude of 1,741 miles (2,801 kilometers) and was airborne for nearly 40 minutes.

The second Hwasong-14 was launched from Mupyong-ni on July 28, 2017, and traveled about 621 miles (1,000 kilometers) into the Sea of Japan, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released a statement condemning both ICBM launches and calling for the international community to stand strong against North Korea by maintaining and strengthening U.N. sanctions. "The United States strongly condemns North Korea's launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, the second this month, in blatant violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions that reflect the will of the international community," Secretary Tillerson said.

The Hwasong-15 ICBM was launched Nov. 29, 2017 from Sain Ni, North Korea. In a statement, the U.S. Department of Defense said it "detected and tracked the missiles that traveled about 1,000 kilometers [621 miles] before splashing down in the Sea of Japan. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) determined the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America, our territories or our allies."

Reports show that the Hwasong-15 reached a maximum altitude of 2,796 miles (4,500 kilometers) and that it flew for about 54 minutes. According to David Wright, physicist and co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Global Security Program, this missile would have a range of more than 8,100 miles (13,000 kilometers), a significantly longer range that previous missiles. It would also have more than enough range to reach Washington, D.C., and any part of the continental United States.

Earlier in September 2017, North Korea also conducted a test of what it claimed was a thermonuclear weapon. The test released 140 kilotons of TNT equivalent, according to The Diplomat, making it larger than all previous tests combined, though other analysts estimated it may have been as large as 250 kilotons.

North Korea has also continued to test its short-range rockets, including the submarine-launched ballistic missile SLBM-Polaris 1, which it launched in 2014 and 2015, as well as a failed test of the KN-11 SLBM in 2015. On March 24, 2016, it conducted tests of a solid-fueled rocket motor, and on April 23, 2016 a successful test of what experts believe was a genuine solid-fueled SLBM that flew about 18 miles (30 kilometers). But a few months later in August, North Korea launched a second solid-fueled SLBM, which traveled 310 miles (500 kilometers) landing in Japan's air defense identification zone.

So North Korea's clearly advancing its nuclear arsenal. What now? And what countries are most at risk?

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What Countries Are Most at Risk?

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber (L) flies with a South Korean F-15K fighter jet over the Korean Peninsula after North Korea's ICBM test on July 30, 2017. South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images
A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber (L) flies with a South Korean F-15K fighter jet over the Korean Peninsula after North Korea's ICBM test on July 30, 2017. South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images

At the time of the July 28, 2017 ICBM launch, then-Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis confirmed North Korea's launch in a press statement, saying the U.S. Department of Defense detected and tracked a single North Korea missile, but North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) determined the missile did not pose a threat to North America.

But Melissa Hanham, then-senior research associate with the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute (she's now deputy director of Open Nuclear Network and director of the Datayo Project at One Earth Future Foundation), told NPR's Robert Siegel a slightly different story. "It does appear that at a minimum this missile may go up to 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles), but it may go as far as 11,000 kilometers (6,800 miles)," she said. "And that puts all of the West Coast and the Midwest in range at 10,000 kilometers, and at 11,000 kilometers, pretty much every U.S. state but Florida is in range."

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But those most at risk are U.S. allies and territories in the Korean Peninsula, including Japan, South Korea and Guam. Kim's threats to the 25 million people of Seoul are nothing new. But the stakes are raised now that it appears North Korea has the capability to launch missiles that can reach the Sea of Japan, Guam, and perhaps Hawaii, Alaska and even the mainland U.S. Guam is a likely target because of its strategic U.S. military base, which is home to nuclear-equipped bombers that can strike North Korea within minutes.

North Korea
Several of North Korea's long-range missiles have the capability of reaching the United States and its allies.
Nuclear Threat Initiative

While there seems to be little debate anymore is 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. Japan and South Korea are the most likely targets of North Korea's threats, whether those measures are conventional or nuclear. The U.S. military has significant assets in both countries, and analysts predict that a nuclear strike anywhere would be devastating. The only response to an attack from North Korea would be to employ the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, which can intercept and shoot down short, medium and intermediate ballistic missiles inside or outside the atmosphere. It can't, however, intercept ICBMs, the type of missiles North Korea has now successfully tested.

And then there is the fear that has Washington truly concerned: that North Korea sells its weapons to consumers who are not U.S. allies.

In response to Kim's threats to the United States and its allies and interests, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously in August 2017 to impose strict new sanctions on North Korea's international trade. The sanctions cost Pyongyang as much as $1 billion a year, a huge price to pay for such a poor country. The goal of the sanctions is to get Kim to abandon his nuclear weapons program, or to get his regime to at least start to negotiate. But sanctions have failed in the past.

The U.S. military has been showing its forces in the Pacific, too. South Korea and the United States are staging their annual springtime military exercises, though they will be scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic (they were canceled entirely in 2020). North Korea often perceives these exercises as a hostile act, and Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korea's leader, sent the Biden a warning.

"We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off powder smell in our land," she said in a statement, according to the country's state news agency. "If it wants to sleep in peace for (the) coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step."

How to solve the North Korean problem has been an issue for decades, but this doesn't mean a full-blown nuclear conflict with North Korea is closer than ever.

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Originally Published: Aug 24, 2017

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More Great Links

  • CNN Paul Ryan townhall transcript. Aug. 21, 2017 (Aug. 25, 2017) http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1708/21/se.01.html
  • Dwyer, Colin. North Korea Says Successful ICBM Test Shows U.S. Is In Striking Distance. July 28, 2017. (Aug. 17. 2017.) http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/07/28/540008218/north-korea-h-ballistic-missile-seoul-and-the-pentagon-say
  • Karimi, Faith. July 30, 2017. (Aug. 18, 2017). US tests defense system after North Korea missile launch http://www.cnn.com/2017/07/30/politics/us-military-tests-thaad-system/index.html
  • Myers, Steven Lee. Trump’s ‘Fire and Fury’ Threat Raises Alarm in Asia. Aug. 9, 2017. (Aug. 25, 2017) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/09/world/asia/north-korea-trump-threat-fire-and-fury.html
  • Nuclear Threat Initiative. North Korea. (Aug. 17, 2017). http://www.nti.org/learn/countries/north-korea/
  • Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs. U.S. bombers conduct bilateral mission with allies in response to North Korea ICBM launch. July 29, 2017. (Aug. 25, 2017). http://www.pacaf.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1261987/us-bombers-conduct-bilateral-mission-with-allies-in-response-to-north-korea-icb/
  • Sang-Hun, Choe. North Korea’s Potential Targets: Guam, South Korea and Japan. Aug. 9, 2017. (Aug. 17, 2017) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/09/world/asia/north-korea-guam-japan-targets.html
  • Taylor, Adam. What the new U.N. sanctions on North Korea mean. Aug. 7, 2017. (Aug. 25, 2017) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/08/07/what-the-new-u-n-sanctions-on-north-korea-mean/
  • U.S. Department of Defense. Statement by Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis on North Korea ICBM launch. July 28, 2017. (Aug. 17, 2017). https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Releases/News-Release-View/Article/1261313/statement-by-pentagon-spokesman-capt-jeff-davis-on-north-korea-icbm-launch/
  • Warrick, Joby. North Korea now making missile-ready nuclear weapons, U.S. analysts say. Washington Post. Aug. 8, 2017. (Aug. 17, 2017). https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/north-korea-now-making-missile-ready-nuclear-weapons-us-analysts-say/2017/08/08/e14b882a-7b6b-11e7-9d08-b79f191668ed_story.html
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  • Wright, David. North Korean ICBM Appears Able to Reach Major US Cities. July 28, 2017. (Aug. 25, 2017) http://allthingsnuclear.org/dwright/new-north-korean-icbm

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