While there is plenty to deplore about North Korea’s latest missile test, it does not appear to be capable of hitting the mainland United States with a nuclear weapon—at least not yet. For one thing, Pyongyang doesn’t seem to have sufficiently mastered miniaturization. That is, while it has conducted five nuclear tests and may have enough fissile material to make 20 nuclear weapons, it can’t make one small enough to fit on a missile that would carry it as far as Seattle.
Michael Elleman, a missile expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, points out an additional reason to doubt Pyongyang’s missile abilities on 38 North, a website devoted to North Korea analysis. As he writes, “a number of critical questions remain about how soon Pyongyang could field a reliable weapon, not the least of which is whether or not North Korea can shield a nuclear warhead from the rigors of re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere at ICBM velocities.”
When a missile reenters the atmosphere, it is subject to high temperatures and other stresses. Elleman examined video of North Korea’s July 28 test, which shows the reentry vehicle descending towards the sea. To his trained eye, it appears to disintegrate while still 3 or 4 kilometers above sea level.
“A reasonable conclusion based on the video evidence is that the Hwasong-14’s re-entry vehicle did not survive during its second test,” he writes. That would mean that Kim Jong Un’s engineers have yet to master re-entry, and still have work to do before they could strike the contiguous United States with a nuclear weapon.