In order for North Korea to pose a genuine threat to the U.S., it would need to upgrade its weaponry with the help of foreign technology, according to a team of U.S. researchers. The findings are part of a research program investigating the possible nuclear weapons capability of North Korea by 2020, according to Fox News.
Neighbors concerned by North Korea’s nuclear tests
Recently the secretive regime of Kim Jong-un has undertaken several nuclear tests, increasing tensions across the region. Neighbors are concerned that negotiations designed to encourage North Korea to disarm do not seem even close to restarting.
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North Korea is just one of several potential flashpoints in today’s geopolitical arena, and U.S. officials are keeping a close eye on the situation. Right now the emphasis is on sanctions and the preparation of armed forces, as shown by joint military exercises between South Korea and the U.S. last month. The annual war games always raise the ire of North Korea, but that does not stop the two allies putting on an impressive show of strength.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter will make a visit to Japan and South Korea this week, and speculation is rife that the U.S. is considering placing missile defense systems in South Korea to defend against a possible ballistic missile strike from the North. At this point in time Seoul is thought to be reticent about the project due to the alienating effect it would have on China, although Japan already plays host to U.S. anti-missile radar.
Could a missile reach U.S. soil?
Navy Admiral William Gortney, commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, is one of a number of U.S. officials to express concern over North Korea’s increasingly powerful nuclear arsenal. Gortney told journalists that the U.S. believes North Korea now has sufficient technology to miniaturize a nuclear warhead in order to arm an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The biggest concern for U.S. officials are KN-08 long-range missiles that have been seen during military parades. It is thought that the rocket can be launched from a road-mobile vehicle, making it difficult to track using satellites.
Continued development of warheads
On the other hand, research by the North Korean Futures Project emphasizes that at this point in time the main threat from North Korean missiles is to its Asian neighbors. The project is an initiative of the U.S.-Korea Institute at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Aerospace engineer John Schilling, and his associate Henry Kan, believe that the 1,000 missiles that North Korea currently possesses are capable of reaching almost all areas of South Korea and Japan. The missiles are based on old Soviet technology.
“North Korea has already achieved a level of delivery system development that will allow it to establish itself as a small nuclear power in the coming years,” reads a paper written by the pair on the institute’s website, 38 North.
Technological advances needed
Although North Korea recently launched a rocket into space, a different set of technical challenges would need to be overcome in order to launch a missile across the Pacific at a target in the United States. Research shows that the North could use a limited number of long-range Taepodong missiles in an emergency, but it is thought that they would be unreliable, susceptible to preemptive strikes and suffer from a lack of accuracy.
Foreign technology could be crucial in helping North Korea overcome these technical problems. It is thought that in order to develop better missiles, North Korea needs to work on high-performance engines, heat shields, guidance electronics and rocket motors which burn solid fuel instead of the traditional liquid fuel.
Access to foreign technology has decreased due to increasing international isolation in the aftermath of North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. Although foreign involvement has declined, the country’s nuclear program continues to progress. The Institute for Science and International Security estimates that the North has enough fissile material to make at least 10 nuclear weapons, possible rising to between 20 and 100 weapons by 2020.
Increasing isolation slows development
That said, North Korea’s progress has slowed in the last few decades, and the country has failed to make the kind of rapid advances that we have seen in Iran and Pakistan. They may have the basic designs and production facilities in place, but North Korea has lost ground on those aforementioned nations, which it in fact used to help with missile design in the 1990s.
Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, claimed that North Korea could potentially launch a KN-08 missile that would reach U.S. soil, but given the lack of testing of such a weapon, he stated that its chances of arriving were “pretty darn low.”