North Korea’s recent threats to launch ballistic missiles at the U.S. territory of Guam might have been motivated by the fact that the missiles the regime currently possesses can’t reach the continental United States with a nuclear warhead. A newly released report suggests that North Korea’s July tests of its intercontinental ballistic missiles were an elaborate deception meant to exaggerate the capabilities of the regime’s weapons.
Last week North Korea said that it was looking into a plan to attack Guam with four intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The statement came just after U.S. President Donald Trump promised to unleash “fire and fury” if North Korea continued missile and nuclear weapon programs that are believed to be primarily targeting the United States.
North Korea conducted tests on July 4 and July 28 of its latest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-14, and claimed success in both tests. One of the most feared scenarios on the U.S. side is that an unstable North Korean regime might one day use such a missile to deliver nuclear warheads in an attack against cities across the continental United States.
Multiple news reports cited an unpublished U.S. Central Intelligence Agency analysis that says that although the Hwasong-14 test conducted on July 28 failed to demonstrate successful atmospheric reentry, the missile could conceivably reach targets in the continental United States if flown on a normal horizontal trajectory instead of the sharply vertical trajectory used during the test.
Many media outlets reacted to last month’s missile tests with alarming headlines, taking North Korea’s assertions at face value and suggesting that the communist dictator Kim Jong-un’s missiles can easily hit New York and Washington.
However, a new report released by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists last week analyzed the data from the two Hwasong-14 flight tests “based on detailed study of the type and size of the rocket motors used, the flight times of the stages of the rockets, the propellant likely used, and other technical factors.”
The report concluded that both tests “were a carefully choreographed deception by North Korea to create a false impression that the Hwasong-14 is a near-ICBM that poses a nuclear threat to the continental US.”
The missile’s good performance in the test was likely the result of “a reduced payload,” which was much lighter than a nuclear warhead. The second test on July 28 had an even smaller payload, according to the report.
While the characteristics of North Korea’s nuclear weapons designs remain unknown, the report estimated that the Hwasong-14, using the publicly reported burn times for the missile’s upper rocket stage, could deliver a nuclear warhead only as far as Anchorage, Alaska since it is doubtful that North Korea can develop any nuclear warhead that weighs less than 500 kilograms to 550 kilograms (1102 to 1112 pounds).
The report’s findings indicate that the North Korean regime is well-aware of the current limitations of its ballistic missiles, which it has repeatedly boasted to the outside world are most potent weapons of mass destruction.
The shortcomings of North Korea’s current stage of weapon development may help explain why North Korea specifically threatened Guam. This island is the U.S. territory closest to Asia and is home to a naval base, an air force base, and a large number of U.S. troops. Only 2,100 miles south of North Korea, Guam is well within range of many of North Korea’s intercontinental and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists report stresses that in the long run North Korea can be expected to overcome many, if not most, of the technical limitations currently faced by its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Previously the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimated that North Korea could have a fully-workable, nuclear-tipped ICBM capable of reaching the continental United States by 2018.
Meanwhile, for the moment, the threats against Guam are off, according to an announcement by Pyongyang’s state media on Aug. 14. The decision by Kim Jong-Un to back away from his threatening posture came hours after China announced it would support UN sanctions on North Korea, suggesting there is more than one way to shoot down an ICBM.