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North Korea is prepping nukes. It's far from finished

The North Korean nuclear threat last year hit milestones at a faster pace in several months — last July Pyongyang tested two suspected intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and its timeline for fielding a reliable ICBM was pushed up by two years for starters. The North has said it wouldn't resort to diplomacy until it could hit the U.S. East Coast. But where exactly does the North Korean nuclear program stand right now amidst all these developments?

Why it matters:

North Korea's not quite at the point of fielding a reliable ICBM to hit the U.S. mainland — yet (and that's the key word here). Experts suggested Pyongyang could have been there by the end of 2017, but U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis this past December said he didn't think they could hit the U.S. mainland yet. The Pentagon wouldn't comment on intelligence on the matter.

The facts:

The North's recent milestones:

  • North Korea has reportedly successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead, per a classified Defense Intelligence Agency report, setting it on the path to launch a missile-ready nuke as The Washington Post first reported.
  • Two tests in 2017 show North Korea testing ICBMs, which could reportedly put the U.S. mainland in range. One late July ICBM test traveled for about 45 minutes, which is longer than even the first July ICBM test by at least 10 minutes, and could put Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles in range. (The reason we say "could" is because we don't know the weight of the warhead in the missile, which matters because the lighter it is, the farther it goes.)
  • Two times in 2017 North Korea launched tests that flew over Japan, indicative of the regime's disinterest in negotiations over its nuclear program and its ability to not only "loft" tests, but fly them horizontally as well.

What's missing:

  1. Miniaturization details: We don't know to what extent North Korea has miniaturized a nuclear warhead — South Korea has assessed that it's likely not technologically capable of miniaturizing a warhead enough. A missile-ready nuke would only be able to hit the U.S. when North Korea can make a bomb less than one-metric ton with a diameter of less than one meter, per think tank 38 North.
  2. Reentry reliability: The DPRK doesn't appear to have a reliable reentry vehicle — many of North Korea's tests' reentry vehicle don't survive, for example, although experts believe it could be years away from mastering the tech. A reentry vehicle is technologically difficult to build due to the high pressures and velocities it must face. A warhead needs a reentry vehicle to carry it through the upper atmosphere, and without it, won't detonate.
  3. Decoys or multiple warheads: 38 North assesses North Korean decoys could be ready in about 5 years. Adding multiple warheads to one missile is unlikely to be ready until 2030. Initial analysis indicates there was one dummy warhead in the DPRK's November test. Decoys would confuse missile defense systems and could overwhelm them by scattering resources in a nuke version of "Russian Roulette," and based on pure math, the U.S. missile defense system might not be enough in the next few years. (A similar, potentially much more devastating scenario would arise with multiple warhead capability.)
  4. Solid-fuel technologies: These rockets are more mobile than rockets that use liquid-fuel, which would allowing the North to act more quickly, would be more difficult for adversaries to detect and allow less time for a response. The North has had multiple successful tests with the missile that uses this technology, although not with long-range tech. It's taken other countries a decade or more to fully develop this tech, and 38 North predicts this is several years out. Some tests over the last few months of 2017 involved solid-fuel tech.
  5. Consistently mobile launches: North Korea carts around some its missiles on mobile launchers, but not every North Korean missile is at the point where it is launched from a mobile launcher. This, like solid-fuel technology, would make it harder for adversaries to detect potential movements or quick attacks.
  6. Submarine-based missile launch capabilities: North Korea has launched tests from a submarine before, but experts say North Korea is unlikely to be at full capacity since it is so technically difficult to launch a missile that survives breaking through layers of water. CNN reported the North conducted three ejection tests last August. With submarine launches North Korea could stealthily launch close to the U.S. mainland, bypassing the technical hurdles it would need to surpass to develop a successful long-range missile.

Impact:

If the North is not ready to hit the U.S. mainland, as experts predict, that means it is likely to continue testing, either so it can troubleshoot technological developments or simply stack up enough successful tests against failures to sow concern in the U.S. that North Korea's nuclear arsenal poses a real threat.

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Editor's note: This was originally published in August, 2017 and has been updated.

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