ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Pentagon confirms that North Korea has launched another intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. It's estimated to have traveled about a thousand kilometers - or about 620 miles - before landing in the Sea of Japan. North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, called the launch a serious warning to the U.S., according to North Koreans state news. He said the entire U.S. mainland was now within range. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the test a new escalation of the threat to the United States, our allies and partners, the region and the world. For more, we turned to Melissa Hanham, senior research associate with the East Asia Nonproliferation Program of the Middlebury Institute. I asked her what the data collected about this launch show about its capabilities and about how far this missile could acutally go.
MELISSA HANHAM: Well, the early data that's coming in is showing us that this missile can actually travel much farther than the one that was tested on July 4. So even though the numbers reported by the Pentagon show it sort of traveling about a thousand kilometers, they're launching these missiles very, very high up in the air. We call it a lofted trajectory. And so if you can imagine a Super Soaker or a hose that you're shooting up in the air at a very high angle and then coming down not too far away from you, if you were to change the trajectory and instead point it away from you, that water would travel a much farther distance.
SIEGEL: Well, what kind of distance might this missile be able to travel, in that case, if it were traveling at a much lower trajectory?
HANHAM: So again, you know, if we're assuming that this is the same missile that they launched on July 4, the Hwasong-14, and that they're testing this missile now at a much higher capacity, then it does appear that at a minimum, this missile may go 10,000 kilometers. But it may go as far as 11,000 kilometers. And that puts all of the West Coast and the Midwest in range at 10,000 kilometers. And at 11,000 kilometers, pretty much every U.S. state but Florida is in range.
SIEGEL: And do you find that alarming, the much greater range that we now think this missile possesses?
HANHAM: It is alarming, but it's not unexpected. Unfortunately, I know as we sort of sat back and held back from negotiations with North Korea, they were able to ramp up their technological experiments. And they've not only improved the quality of their existing missiles, but they've diversified their forces and now added a range of new missiles, including solid-fuel missiles, very far long-range missiles, including this ICBM that they just launched. And they're working on a nuclear warhead as well.
SIEGEL: You said the North Koreans are developing a nuclear warhead. At this point, they would not be in the position to launch this ICBM with a nuclear warhead on it. Do I have that right?
HANHAM: Well, we're not quite sure. This is actually one of the most difficult things to verify from the outside. North Korea has published photographs of a purported warhead. Unfortunately, we don't have X-ray vision. We can't see inside and verify that that is a real and true warhead. But after five nuclear tests, it's really not out of the realm of possibilities that they would have a compact warhead. And they've also said that they would like to have a thermonuclear warhead. And so it may mean that they have future nuclear tests planned.
SIEGEL: Now, the U.S. has been trying to advance its anti-missile technology. Would this be vulnerable to a U.S. anti-missile missile? Would it be more vulnerable if it were going at a lower trajectory?
HANHAM: Well, you know, the U.S. has been developing ballistic missile defense for some time. THAAD, which is based in South Korea, is not intended for use against an ICBM like this one. But, you know, the ground, of course, tests that have been done from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, for example, those tests were successful. And they did a mock ICBM just a few weeks ago.
The challenge is that those tests aren't very realistic when it comes to a real war scenario. Vandenberg knew where the missile was coming from. They knew it was a single missile. They knew there were no sort of confusers like decoys or chaffs. And they also had a window of time where they knew the missile would be launched. North Korea would not be quite so courteous as to tell us all that information.
SIEGEL: Melissa Hanham of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program of Middlebury Institute in Monterey, Calif. Thanks for talking with us.
HANHAM: Thanks for having me.
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