Although Kim Jong-Un‘s arsenal is some way off being able to travel the 5,500 miles needed to reach the US, yesterday it was revealed the nation’s nuclear programme is developing much faster than previously anticipated.
A test launch on Sunday would have reached 2,500 miles if fired at a standard trajectory, prompting leading scientists David Wright and Markus Schiller to analyse what would happen should North Korea strike.
Wright said: ‘The timelines are short. Even for long-range missiles, there are a lot of steps that go into detecting the launch and figuring out what it is, leaving the president with maybe 10 minutes to decide whether to launch a retaliatory strike.’
North Korea’s latest missile test marks a significant step forward towards Kim Jong-un‘s regime producing an ICBM capable of hitting the US mainland, experts have warned.
The dictator’s defense ministry fired a missile named Hwasong-12 on Sunday night which soared 489 miles (787 km) reaching a height of 1,312 miles (2,111 km).
See Video Below.
The test ‘represents a level of performance never before seen from a North Korean missile’, John Schilling, an aerospace expert, said in an analysis on the US-based 38 North website.
Sunday’s missile was deliberately fired at the highest angle to avoid affecting neighboring countries’ security, but had it been launched at a standard trajectory, it would have reached at least 2,500 miles (4,000km) – almost half the 5,500 miles (8,851 km) required to reach the US mainland.
South Korean Defence Minister Han Min-koo told parliament Sunday’s test-launch was ‘successful in flight’.
Asked if North Korea’s missile program was developing faster than the South had expected, he said: ‘Yes.’
New York and Washington are less than 6,800 miles (11,000 kilometers) away.
That translates to about 30 minutes according to Schiller, or 38-39 minutes by Wright’s estimate.
The United States relies in large part on its Ground-based Missile Defense system, with bases in Vandenberg Air Base in California and Fort Greely, Alaska, to intercept incoming missiles, but also has anti-missile defense systems GMD and THAAD at its disposal.
But critics point out the GMD, which has cost $40 billion, had six out of its nine test intercepts fail between 2002 and 2016.
They claim the strategy has ‘no credible plan for defeating countermeasures’ such as decoys.
‘In its current form, strategic missile defense is a waste of resources at best and dangerous at worst,’ the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote in a report published last year.
‘It is not a reliable defense under real-world conditions – by promoting it as a solution to nuclear conflict, US officials complicate diplomatic efforts abroad, and perpetuate a false sense of security that could harm the US public.’
Wright, a senior scientist and co-director of the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that aside from stopping an incoming missile, another big question is what would a US president do in response.
‘The timelines are short,’ he said.
‘Even for long-range missiles, there are a lot of steps that go into detecting the launch and figuring out what it is, leaving the president with maybe 10 minutes to decide whether to launch a retaliatory strike.’
And if the president decided not to strike back, land-based ICBMs could be in the air within five minutes and submarine-based missiles in 15.
To be classified as an ICBM – intercontinental ballistic missile – the missile must have a minimum range of 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles).
North Korea does not at this time have such a missile, as far as the experts can tell.
Schiller, of ST Analytics, an independent space technology and rocketry consulting company based in Germany, explained the time it takes for an ICBM to cover its first 5,500 kilometers is usually a little more than 20 minutes.
If you fire at something 6,200 miles (10,000 km) away, however, he says it will still reach it in less than 30 minutes.
So while Wright suggests 33-34 minutes to San Francisco, Schiller predicts a faster trip to the West Coast – saying a missile could hit Seattle 5,000 miles (8,000km) away and Los Angeles 5,600 miles (9,000km) away in under 30 minutes from launch.
With the looming threat of a strike and with hostilities rising, Seoul is still the most vulnerable potential target.
Well before North Korea had a nuclear program, it realized it could hold the 10 million people of the South Korean capital hostage with the threat of a massive, conventional artillery strike.
If it were to launch such a strike, the first wave of shells from its dug-in gun batteries concentrated just north of the Demilitarized Zone could land with no warning.
South Korea has Patriot missile-defense batteries, but they are intended to protect against short-range Scud missiles.
They would not help against an artillery attack.
The much-talked-about, state-of-the-art THAAD missile defense system deployed in South Korea this month also cannot protect Seoul from either artillery or incoming missiles – it isn’t designed to do that from its current site.
To make things uglier, the North could hit the South with chemical or biological warheads.
One nuclear scenario that has been raised is an attack on the city of Busan, a major port sometimes used by the US Navy.
That’s an option Pyongyang might consider if it believed it was under immediate threat of attack and wanted to make a show of overwhelming force to keep Washington from committing further.
It would take just six minutes to strike Seoul in this way from North Korea.
The next obvious target would be Tokyo, which could be hit with a strike in as little as 10 minutes.
Japan also has Patriot missiles it deploys, among other places, on the grounds of its Defense Ministry in downtown Tokyo.
It helped develop with the US the ship-based Aegis system, which is designed to intercept medium-range missiles with a range of less than 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles).
The Patriots are designed to intercept an incoming missile at its ‘terminal stage’ – just before it hits – if the Aegis’ ship-based SM-3 missiles fail to intercept them farther out and higher up, at mid-course.
It remains unknown whether Pyongyang actually has a working nuclear warhead, Schiller said, as opposed to ‘just some nuclear device that goes boom in a tunnel, under laboratory conditions.’
Serious questions have been raised over whether this type of defence strategy when augmented by the THAAD system would be a reliable missile shield.
One problem is whether it could be overwhelmed by a swarm attack – several incoming missiles at the same time.
North Korea simultaneously launched four medium-range Scud ER missiles into the Sea of Japan in March, which was claimed to have been in reaction to these concerns.
Recognizing the current shield’s weaknesses, some Japanese ruling party lawmakers are pushing for a first-strike plan of Japan’s own, using ballistic or cruise missiles, or F-35 stealth fighters.
By GARETH DAVIES FOR MAILONLINE