Technology & Science

'Just a matter of time': North Korea's missile capabilities may be closer than once thought

On Tuesday, North Korea launched a missile that it says has the ability to reach the continental United States, and experts believe that could be a real possibility.

'We've laughed at them for a long time, but they're pretty good at this,' expert says

An image released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) that is said to be the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-15's test in Pyongyang, North Korea, on November 30, 2017. (KCNA/Reuters)

On Tuesday, North Korea launched a missile it says has the ability to reach the continental United States, and experts believe that could be a real possibility.

There are many unknowns about the technology the highly secretive country possesses. However, its decades-long work to increase its nuclear capabilities, including developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), should now be taken seriously, some say.

"It's just a matter of time ... for them to have a working ICBM with a hydrogen weapon on it," Ian Williams, associate director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CBC News. "We laughed at them for a long time, but they're pretty good at this."

Clip shows leader Kim Jong-un greeting soldiers, missile on mobile truck, launch from several angles 1:15

While the missile went farther than any other, it's not an entirely new rocket, David Wright, a physicist and missile expert from the Union of Concerned Scientists, told CBC News.

"From a technical standpoint, this was a logical next step beyond what North Korea did in July," he said, referring to the launch of a Hwasong-14 ICBM that experts said would be capable of reaching Los Angeles. "But I would have actually called this the Hwasong-14.1 rather than the Hwasong-15."

This photo taken on November 29, 2017, and released on November 30, 2017 by (KCNA) shows the Hwansong-15 missile which is capable of reaching all parts of the US. Many nuclear experts say the North has yet to prove it has mastered all technical hurdles, including the ability to deliver a heavy nuclear warhead reliably atop an ICBM, but it was likely that it soon would. (KCNA/KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

The challenges of distance

While experts believe that it's unlikely North Korea has yet the ability to launch a hydrogen bomb, Williams said they likely have weaponizable atomic technology. And those could be put on short-range missiles capable of reaching South Korea and Japan.

Tuesday's launch was said to have carried the missile to an altitude of 4,500 kilometres — more than 10 times that of the International Space Station. If so, it was the highest and longest missile launch in the country's history.

It's not known what kind of payload was used, but whatever it weighed, Williams estimates the Hwasong-15 could reach all of North America. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects an intercontinental ballistic missile test in North Korea on Wednesday, Nov. 29. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service/Associated Press)

However, all that is thrown into question if the payload — the nuclear warhead itself — is much heavier than whatever the payload was for Tuesday's launch. Experts agree that a typical warhead might weigh somewhere between half a ton and one ton. If it was a light payload on Tuesday, as some believe — something like 100-200 kg — then replacing it with a half-ton warhead could cut the range by a third, Wright said.

"One of the things you're trying to do is to make that as light as possible," he said. "And that's the real question: Is North Korea at half a ton? Some of us think they may be able to get down to a third of a ton."

That is a scary thought to Williams.

"If they did have a warhead, speculatively, that was about 300 kg, that would be a big deal. That would be pretty bad," he said.

'They're going to get there'

The missile's trajectory also plays a large part in determining the distance it can travel. The one used on Tuesday, Williams notes, is a "lofting trajectory," where it goes straight up and returns nearby. It's akin to a pop fly in baseball. On that particular trajectory, it has less resistance on the way down.

But in order to get it to North America, it would have to travel more like a home run, more or less diagonally. This would, in turn, increase the stress on the vehicle which means a more durable vehicle would be required.

The distances North Korean rockets are believed to be capable of reaching. Taepodong-2 was a space-launch rocket, though Williams questions whether or not it would be used in a nuclear scenario. (CBC)

Another unknown is whether or not North Korea has the technology to protect the re-entry vehicle that would house the warhead. That part might be the easiest to achieve, Williams said.

Though North Korea's missile program has been going on for decades, Wright said they seem to be getting closer in recent years. 

"They might not be going fast; it might be taking them some time. But they're going to get there."

About the Author

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior Reporter, Science

Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.