North Korea Could Be 5 Years Away From Making A Nuclear Missile

They have nukes and missiles, now they need to combine them

Missile Under Wraps In Military Parade

Missile Under Wraps In Military Parade

Trucks are one way to move ballistic missiles around.Stefan Krasowski, via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Launching a ballistic missile is a solved problem. It was first solved in World War II, when German V-2 rockets flew over 220 miles to rain death on the United Kingdom. During the Cold War, the potential to deliver a nuclear attack with a missile fired from one side of the globe to another led to an arms race, a massive nuclear stockpile, and the category of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs. Building an ICBM is also a solved problem, requiring the expertise to make a nuclear warhead and to build a missile body that can effectively deliver it.

This is all to preface a simple, grim possibility. North Korea, a totalitarian dictatorship and the only country to test nuclear warheads this century, might only be five or so years away from building working, nuclear-tipped ICMBs of their own.

Military experts say that by 2020, Pyongyang will most likely have the skills to make a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile topped by a nuclear warhead. They also expect that by then North Korea may have accumulated enough nuclear material to build up to 100 warheads. Siegfried S. Hecker, a Stanford professor who has traveled to North Korea and who formerly directed the Los Alamos weapons lab in New Mexico, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, said North Korea’s progress in missile and nuclear development signals that it has gone from seeing unconventional weapons as bargaining chips to “deciding they need a nuclear weapons fighting force.” The Pentagon warned Congress in a report earlier this year that one of Pyongyang’s latest missiles, if perfected, “would be capable of reaching much of the continental United States.”

North Korea may not be limited to land-launched ballistic missiles. In August, a North Korean submarine launched missile traveled over 300 miles. While that's still an order of magnitude shorter than the thousands of miles of range for an intercontinental ballistic missile, submarines can conceal themselves at sea, making the attacks a lot harder to detect until they happen.

North Korea does not yet have the ability to launch a nuclear-tipped missile against targets in the mainland United States. What they have right now are missiles--some that appear to work--and nuclear warheads, which may or may not fit on top of those missiles. Pyongyang still has work to do to prove that this is a real threat. Yet that work, it appears, is getting done. Just last week, North Korea tested another nuclear warhead. August's successful submarine missile launch followed a series of earlier, unsuccessful tests starting in December 2015.

This is not new science, and it doesn’t take unknown discoveries to make it happen. ICBMs are a solved problem, and North Korea is iterating its way to an answer.