Days of escalatory remarks and posturing on the Korean Peninsula culminated on Friday with the North announcing that all peace pacts with the South will be called off and threatening a nuclear strike against the United States. The move follows the unanimous approval of new sanctions by the United Nations Security Council as a punitive measure for Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons test last month.
A spokesman for President Barack Obama stated in response that the United States can defend against any North Korean attack and that Pyongyang’s rhetoric is not unusual. However, the threat of nuclear assault is a serious problem for regional and international security. Could the rogue regime actually deliver a nuclear device to American soil? If not, could it hit treaty partners like Japan and South Korea?
North Korea has a mixed portfolio when it comes to the development and deployment of long range ballistic missiles that can carry a nuclear warhead. The vast majority of all attempts to test such delivery weapons, usually labeled as satellite launch systems for the purpose of seeing off international rebuke, have failed before the rocket entered orbit.
The first attempt to test a rocket in 1998 ended when the missile that was used disintegrated before leaving the atmosphere. A 2006 test of a more advanced missile platform resulted in the unit exploding less than a minute after takeoff. Successive attempts to launch increasingly sophisticated missiles last year all suffered from major mechanical failures, notably faulty ignition boosters.
However, the most recent missile test in December did result in a satellite package being delivered into orbit. The orbiting platform did spin out of control and burned up shortly thereafter but the delivery system was validated as at least being tentatively capable of performing the missions it was designed for.
The estimated flight range of the missile, some 10,000 kilometers, puts it as capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States, in range of cities like Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco.
But a major factor in determining North Korea’s ballistic nuclear capabilities is in the marriage of the missile and explosive technologies involved. It is highly unlikely that Pyongyang will be able to fit a warhead on such a rocket in the near future without fully succeeding in miniaturizing the explosive component. That process has many obstacles and experts deem it improbable that the regime has been able to produce a sufficiently advanced device that could be delivered.
That doesn’t preclude the possibility of an attack against American allies Japan and South Korea. While successful major conventional incursions into the South can be discounted, the potential for damage that could be wrought by the North’s estimated six to eight nuclear devices is worrisome. Both countries are easily within range of the short and medium range missiles in Pyongyang’s arsenal, missiles that are reliable and suited to carry nuclear warheads.
Japan’s missile defense system could be effective in shooting down such ballistic missiles and most of the North’s conventional missile corps poses no nuclear threat. However, the possibility that a single device hits a major target is almost certainly enough to motivate continued militaristic posturing and build up on the part of America’s allies.
Ultimately, it is unlikely that North Korea can realistically threaten the United States with a nuclear attack in the foreseeable future. But the chance that such an attack succeeds against the regime’s neighbors is a tangible one that will likely be the driving force of continued adversarial tête-à-tête in the region, particularly because the United States cannot write off the direct security implications of an attack against South Korea where thousands of American service personnel are stationed as a “tripwire” force to ensure the nation’s involvement in any conflict on the peninsula.