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What It Means If North Korea Has ICBM Capability

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What It Means If North Korea Has ICBM Capability

What It Means If North Korea Has ICBM Capability

What It Means If North Korea Has ICBM Capability

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North Korea claims it has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, which the U.S. and South Korea are working to confirm. The missile could be powerful enough to reach Alaska.

NPR's Kelly McEvers discusses the latest developments with David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

North Korea announced on state television today that it had conducted its first successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile or ICBM. It's quite a message on the Fourth of July, a direct rebuke to President Trump who said earlier this year that such a test, quote, "won't happen." U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned the test. In response, the U.S. and South Korea launched a joint military exercise. David Wright is co-director of the Global Security Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. He says the North Korean ICBM landed in the sea, but it could have the range to reach Alaska. I started by asking him how an ICBM works.

DAVID WRIGHT: If you think of an airplane - an airplane flies by being powered through its whole flight, but an ICBM is - a ballistic missile is only accelerated and powered for a couple minutes early on. And then at that point, it basically just travels through space under the effects of gravity. So it's very much like throwing a baseball. It's powered when it's in your hand. And the speed and the direction that it's going when you let go of it determines where it goes to. And so by making it go faster and faster, just like when you're throwing a ball, you can make it go farther and farther.

MCEVERS: And this missile that was tested overnight, of course, you know, landed in the sea. How were you able to calculate that it has the capability to reach Alaska?

WRIGHT: Yeah, so the analogy I've been using, which seems appropriate for the Fourth of July, is if - imagine you're playing with your kids in a pool with a Super Soaker and you shoot it sort of straight up, it'll go very high, but it'll fall back down not very far from you. If you now take that same Super Soaker and shoot it at a flatter angle, you can get it to go much farther.

And that's essentially what they did in this case. And it's something we've seen them do on some of their last launches as well. They launched this missile essentially straight up. It came down, landed in the Sea of Japan. That has the advantage that it doesn't overfly Japan, which has caused problems in the past. So by doing a computer model that asks what it would take for a missile to follow the flown trajectory, I can then use that same model to say OK, if I now flatten out the trajectory, how far could it go?

MCEVERS: And then how far off would a missile like that be from reaching the mainland United States?

WRIGHT: So the range that I've calculated would cover Alaska, but it would still be a few thousand miles short of reaching the lower 48 and the West Coast. So it was definitely a step forward. It was symbolically important because it was the first time that it was classified as a ICBM. But they've got a ways to go to reach the West Coast.

MCEVERS: Does North Korea have a nuclear warhead that could - right now - that could be mounted on one of these ICBMs?

WRIGHT: Well, that's an ongoing question. We've seen them conduct five underground tests. We know that they're getting a nuclear explosion to happen. The question then is whether they can make that small enough to be carried on a missile and also rugged enough. As you go to longer range missiles, the forces on the missile become greater and greater.

You know, it's different having basically an experimental device underground and putting something that has to, you know, withstand the rigors of the real world. And people are somewhat divided on that, but I think everybody agrees that even if they're not quite there yet, that it's only a matter of time, that they're on the right track.

MCEVERS: Right. And knowing that, I mean, knowing that this ICBM capability now exists that could hit Alaska, how does that change the game?

WRIGHT: Well, it's interesting because South Korea and Japan have long been within range of North Korean short-range missiles which we think could carry nuclear weapons. So sort of in the region, it doesn't change things a lot. You could argue that since they still have a couple thousand kilometers to go to reach the big population centers on the West Coast, which is what they would probably want to be able to threaten, this is sort of an intermediate step.

But I think symbolically it is going to make a big difference in the way people view this in part because of the statement President Trump early in the year, that this symbolic crossing of being able to build an ICBM is I think seen symbolically as a very big deal.

MCEVERS: David Wright is co-director of the Global Security Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Thank you so much.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

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