In a remarkable statement last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that “the political and diplomatic efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to the point of denuclearization have failed.” Shortly afterward, in response to joint military exercises being conducted by the United States and South Korea, the North Korean government held a news conference and declared that “the situation is already on the brink of nuclear war.”
The threat of nuclear war, mostly background noise for the past 25 years, is alarming. But given the uniqueness of North Korea’s position in the world, it’s worth wondering how concerned we should actually be.
To answer that question, we need to first identify the “we” we’re talking about. If that “we” includes South Koreans, the answer is: Quite a bit.
The South Korea problem
The North Korean capital, Pyongyang, is about 120 miles from the South Korean capital, Seoul, home to 10 million people. That’s within easy striking range of North Korea’s existing arsenal of missiles, which is a key reason that the United States recently began deploying a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, in South Korea, aimed at intercepting an incoming attack. Whether those missiles could carry an atomic or hydrogen bomb is another question, one we’ll get to in a moment.
Of course, the proximity of North and South Korea means that there is a large risk from conventional weapons, as well. There are artillery already at the North Korean border that could strike Seoul, although it’s not clear how much damage would result.
The threat of a missile hitting the U.S.
If the “we” is the “we” most likely to read this article — residents of the United States — the calculus is a bit different.
Excluding American forces in South Korea (about 25,000 of them), the greatest threat faced by the United States is of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Raising three questions: Does it have nuclear weapons? Are those weapons small enough to fit on a missile? And does North Korea have a missile that could reach the United States?
The answer to the first question is yes, the North Koreans have repeatedly tested some form of nuclear device. In September, North Korea tested a bomb with an estimated yield of 10 to 20 kilotons — about the yield of the bomb that struck Hiroshima during World War II. That can do a lot of damage, but it pales in comparison with the sort of warhead currently in U.S. or Russian arsenals.
At the time of that test, the North Koreans also claimed to have developed a weapon small enough to fit onto a missile, though this can be hard to verify. In February, the country released a photo showing a relatively small bomb that expert analysis figured might yield 20 kilotons and could be small enough to fit on a missile — if the photo actually depicted a working device.
The broader question, and the most easily verified, is whether any North Korean missiles could reach the United States. North Korea unquestionably has missiles capable of traveling long distances, and in February 2016, it launched a satellite into space. (That satellite wasn’t deployed properly and soon began to tumble uncontrollably in orbit, suggesting that North Korea’s capabilities were not yet refined.)
To strike the United States, though, the country would need a missile that could travel for thousands of miles, requiring a very specific type of missile.
The Federation of American Scientists catalogues the missiles that North Korea has in its arsenal and those it hopes to add. To strike Alaska, it would need a long-range ICBM that could travel 7,000 kilometers, or about 4,300 miles. To hit the continental United States, it would need a full-range ICBM, which can range from 8,000 to 12,000 kilometers, or 5,000 to about 7,500 miles. The missiles that are under development in North Korea are of the Taepodong-2 variety. If launched from the Sohae launching station in the northwest corner of the country, nearly all of the United States would conceivably be within range, with the exception of southern Florida.
On Saturday, North Korea announced that it had tested a rocket engine of “historic significance” — perhaps a liquid-fueled rocket that could serve as the second-stage of a full-range ICBM.
But there’s no indication at this point that North Korea has such a device prepared — much less a missile that could reliably deliver a nuclear weapon at that distance with accuracy. While North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said last year that his regime had “entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile,” there are a lot of parts that need to work together flawlessly to be effective: the stages of the missile, the bomb itself.
That said, during World War II, the Japanese launched balloon-based bombs that they hoped would reach the U.S. mainland. Some did, killing six people in Oregon. Point being that even if there are low odds of a lot of things working perfectly, sometimes they can. In 2015, Adm. Bill Gortney told reporters that it was not likely that North Korea could strike the United States but that it was “prudent” to assume that it might be able to.