Uncertainty remains about North Korea’s technological maturity and ability to launch nuclear warheads that could hit the US homeland, even after its recent success at launching the Hwasong-14 missile and the conducting of its most powerful nuclear test yet. The first-stage engine of the Hwasong-14 is a critical component in its possible operation as an intercontinental ballistic missile, but there are questions about how Pyongyang came by this engine, how many it possesses, and whether or not it can produce them on its own. These uncertainties are troubling not only with regard to North Korea, but also with regard to Iran. They have sobering implications about the possibility of monitoring and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction worldwide.
The success of the two test launches by North Korea of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-14 on July 4 and 28, as well as the powerful nuclear test on September 3, surprised and shocked the world, especially the US. This is because they suggest an eventual scenario in which Pyongyang is able to strike the American continent with nuclear weapons, a capability to which it might already be very close.
To this was added The Washington Post report of August 8, according to which the American intelligence community believes North Korea has successfully developed a miniaturized nuclear weapon that can be installed in the warhead of a ballistic missile. This achievement means Pyongyang is crossing the threshold to becoming a nuclear power. Contributing to the unease are Pyongyang’s fiery declarations, including a statement on October 16 by North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the UN that “the entire US mainland is within our firing range.”
It is difficult to assess the truth of that statement, as North Korea’s nuclear status is still ambiguous. These issues remain to be determined:
- the ratio between Hwasong-14’s flight range and the payload weight it can carry;
- the weight and dimensions of the nuclear bomb North Korea has developed so far, and its ability to fit it into a missile warhead;
- whether Pyongyang has developed a “reentry vehicle” (RV) capable of surviving a return into the atmosphere prior to hitting its target;
- the missile’s accuracy; and
- the origin of the missile’s first-stage (main) engine, the number of engines of this type possessed by North Korea, and its ability to manufacture them domestically.
American aerospace engineer John Schilling wrote in July that the Hwasong-14 is still unreliable and not yet capable of reaching Alaska or Hawaii. In his view, it will take another year or two of tests and development before the missile can carry a nuclear warhead capable of striking targets on the American West Coast.