Could North Korea Really Hit The United States With A Nuke?

In a predictably insane yet still unsettling development, North Korea has declared its interest in a "preemptive" nuclear strike against the United States. The bluster comes ahead of a United Nations vote on tougher sanctions, and it's largely just posturing. But if it came down to it, could North Korea follow through?

It's Got the Range...

You probably already know that North Korea has a long history of firing long-range missiles into the air with mixed success. The country first showed off its aeronautical prowess — as much as a secretive authoritarian regime can — in 1998 with a Taepodong-1 rocket. Neither the rocket nor its satellite payload reached orbit. The country's second attempt, in 2006, ended 40 seconds after liftoff when the Taepodong-2 rocket exploded. For its third attempt, in 2009, North Korean engineers created a more advanced version of the Taepodong-2, known as the Unha-2 ("Galaxie-2"), but its third-stage engine failed to ignite and the entire assembly crashed into the Pacific Ocean. And in April of last year, North Korea's latest rocket iteration, the Unha-3, also "failed to reach orbit".

In early December though, North Korea's Unha-3 launch found moderate success. It's a little terrifying, given its presumed specs and capabilities. While it can't be independently verified, we do know that it is a three-stage rocket, based on the Unha-2 design, measuring about 32m tall and 2.4m in diameter. Its primary stage engine carries 80,000kg of fuel, its second stage carries an additional 7000 kg, and its final stage shot a 100kg weather satellite, the Kwangmyongsong-3, into polar orbit. A satellite which quickly, hilariously and dangerously spun out of control.

The Unha-3 differs from its predecessors in that its third stage carries more fuel, since the new rocket is being launched to the South rather than to the East to avoid flying over Japan. But the only number you really need to concern yourself is its estimated range of approximately 10,000km — roughly the distance from Pyongyang to Los Angeles.

...But Not the Brains

Iime to panic? Not quite. While North Korea has nukes and long-range missiles, it's a long way off from being able to put the two together in any meaningful way. It will be years before the country can make a nuclear device that's small enough to fit on a ballistic missile, and years more until it has enough confidence in its launches to guarantee a direct hit.

And that's just the technological gap. What might be a bigger preventative, as Bloomberg points out, will be the protestations of China, North Korea's primary trade partner and only prominent international ally. Making China angry would put an already deeply impoverished, isolated North Korea in even more dire straits. And the US response to such an act would be, needless to say, total.

North Korea may well be able to reach Los Angeles with a nuclear weapon someday. And it's likely a matter of years, not decades. But even then, can, should and will are entirely different stories. Even the most desperate, unbalanced regime should be able to tell the difference.

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