Is North Korea Equipped to Attack the United States?


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. U.S. 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.

While North Korea has long made claims it has "miniaturized" nuclear warheads, international experts have doubted them. But an analysis completed in July 2017 by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency says otherwise. According to the Washington Post, U.S. intelligence officials now say North Korea has in fact produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, meaning the rogue state is on the verge of becoming a full-fledged nuclear power. The analysis comes after another U.S. intelligence assessment that also upped the official estimate for the total number of nuclear bombs in North Korea's arsenal to 60, though other experts says it's much fewer than that.

Since 2006, North Korea has tested nuclear explosive devices in 2006, 2009, 2013 and twice in 2016. 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 two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the Hwasong-14, that could potentially reach the United States. The first was on 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 and most recent ICBM 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. 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.

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.

And as late as Aug. 23, 2017, North Korea's state media released photos of what appears to show designs of one or two new missiles. "This is the North Koreans showing us, or at least portraying, that their solid-fuel missile program is improving at a steady rate," David Schmerler, research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey's James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told CNN. Solid fuel missiles are faster and easier to deploy because they're always fueled.

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

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