You are definitely going to die.
Probably not today, though. And almost certainly not from a North Korean nuclear weapon—although I would still feel better if someone took President Trump’s smartphone away.
I say this because setting expectations—and failing them—is important for making good policy. For those of us who study North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the test of an intercontinental-range ballistic missile that can strike parts of the United States was hardly a surprise. North Korea put out a frickin’ press release a couple of weeks ago, pointing to Trump’s tweet and letting the world know that Trump Tower would soon be in range.
For the rest of you, though, I gather that this has come as some sort of horrible surprise. That this comical, backward nation is suddenly being able to lob a couple of kilotons of holocaust into your backyard—sucking the paint off your house and giving your family a permanent orange afro, to quote Austin Millbarge—seems kind of unbelievable.
But it is true. And we have to deal with it. And I need to give you a little bit more bad news. After the shock of North Korea’s ICBM test wore off, I have noticed reporters and commentators start to reassuring themselves. Sure, it was technically an ICBM. But it only works out to about 7,000 kilometers. It is just Alaska that is in range. I am fine. This is fine.
But it is not fine. When all is said and done, North Korea’s new missile, the Hwasong-14, will probably be able to hit a lot more than Alaska. And if it doesn’t, the next one will. Let me explain.
North Korea tends to test its long-range missiles by shooting them nearly straight up. This means the missiles go very high, but not very far. That is useful for North Korea, which does not want the political hassle that followed its 1998 launch that flew over Japan. This missile, according to the North Koreans, reached more than 2,800 km in altitude. That is about seven times the altitude of the International Space Station. Yet it safely fell less than 1,000 km from its launch point, into the sea between Korea and Japan.
Almost immediately, experts modeled how far the missile would have traveled if North Korea had fired it on “minimum energy” trajectory—firing the missile at an angle that would maximize the distance it could travel. The Hwasong-14 went 2,800 km up, and almost 1,000 km out. If it had been fired on a normal trajectory, it would have traveled about 7,000 km—enough to meet the formal definition of an ICBM and to hit Alaska.
And like that, a strange sense of denial set in. Well, it’s just Alaska. Sarah Palin and the Iditarod. If a nuclear weapon goes off in Anchorage, it will probably do about a million dollars in improvements.
But it is important to understand that 7,000 km is the range that North Korea demonstrated. It is minimum. Those of us who study proliferation are now in the process of modeling the missile to determine its maximum range. And I don’t like what I see.
The new missile appears to share a lot of common characteristics with the new missile, called the Hwasong-12, tested on May 14. My colleagues at the Middlebury Institute, along with friends at the Union of Concerned Scientists, have been modeling this missile very carefully. We measured its length and width, located the weld lines that showed where the propellant tanks are located, estimated its weight by analyzing the crane that lifted it into place, and determined the power of its engine by tracking the missile’s acceleration down to the tenth of a second.
We concluded that this missile is larger than most experts initially thought. Moreover, it has a much better engine and more efficient airframe than anything North Korea has ever built.
The Hwasong-12 was large. The Hwasong-14 is larger still. It appears to be wider than the Hwasong-12, and has a second stage—a missile on top of a missile—that extends its range. Although it is too early to offer a definitive judgment about the full capability of the Hwasong-14, a two-stage missile of this size and sophistication should be able to deliver a nuclear-weapon-size payload much farther than just Alaska, to targets throughout most of the continental United States.
It is possible that North Korea’s Hwasong-14 underperformed. But it is more likely that North Korea simply did not test the missile to its full range, wanting to bring it down into the sea. That is fairly straightforward for rockets that use liquid fuel, where it is possible to simply stop the engine to reduce the range.
China, for instance, conducted several reduced-range tests of its DF-5 ICBM before conducting a full-range test in 1980. Another test fell short because the second-stage engine turned off a few seconds too soon. Whatever happened, the capabilities demonstrated this week are probably not the full capability of the missile.
The bottom line is that there is no reason at this point to conclude that the Hwasong-14 has a range of “only” 7,000 km or that it is just Alaska that is within range. The technologies on display in the Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 suggest that the latter is much more capable. And there is no reason to think that North Korea cannot build an ICBM that can reach anywhere in the United States.
That isn’t a reason to panic. But it is a reason to face squarely the reality that North Korea is a nuclear-weapons state that can target the United States.
The mantra of the United States, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has been that the United States will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state. Whatever that phrase meant in the past, it now reads as a refusal to accept the current reality.