CNN reported Thursday morning that intercepted communications indicate that North Korea may be planning to launch ballistic missiles “within days,” in yet another potential escalation. South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin also told a government panel on Thursday that North Korea has moved a medium-range missile to its eastern coast, possibly in preparation for either a test or military demonstration.
North Korea’s threat comes from three factors: the unpredictability of its leader, Kim Jong Un; its ongoing nuclear weapons program; and its large amount of conventional weapons. Despite the difficulty it has seen in testing and its lack of large stockpiles of fissile material, North Korea’s nuclear program remains a major concern. North Korea appears to have jump-started the process of getting its plutonium reactor at Yongbon back online, but it will possibly take years to produce enough material for new weapons. At present, North Korea is estimated to have enough plutonium for 10 nuclear warheads, but Pyongyang’s ability to shrink down a nuclear warhead to the size where it would fit on a missile has advanced significantly and the country theoretically maintains rudimentary delivery methods within the region. There is also concern that North Korea could sell its weapons and/or weapons technology to third parties.
Even in light of Pyongyang’s nuclear capacity, North Korea’s large array of missiles and rockets remain a considerable threat to the peace and stability of the region. Of those conventional weapons, North Korea’s short-range Scud and Rodong missiles pose the greatest risk to U.S. assets in the area, given their high number and accuracy. With an estimated 1,800-mile range, the Musudan medium-range missile — which is mostly likely the type moved to the North Korean cost on Thursday — also may pose a significant threat, but its effectiveness has been questioned given the missile’s lack of prominent testing.
North Korea’s longer range missiles — the Taepodong-2 and Uhna rocket — are less reliable, both in accuracy and in performance. In 2006, a test of the Taepodong-2 completely failed, as did its use in an attempt to place a satellite in orbit in 2009. In Dec. 2012, North Korea did successfully test the Unha rocket, claiming to use it to a satellite in orbit. Estimates of the range for the Unha places it at approximately 4,500 miles — able to reach the U.S. West Coast — although experts have said that it is highly unlikely that North Korean missiles can hit the U.S. mainland and the Unha’s accuracy is completely unknown.
In any case, it is more likely that the launch of North Korean missiles would be a threat to U.S. allies and assets in the region, including South Korea and Japan. South Korea is well-within range of the shortest range missiles, with Seoul being only 35 miles from the Demilitarized Zone. That short distance also lends itself to the possibility that North Korea could drop a nuclear bomb on the country, rather than launch a nuclear warhead. Japan, while not particularly caught in this current spiral, has also been on the receiving end of North Korea’s threats. The two countries are home to a combined 64,000 U.S. forces, stationed in bases at Okinawa, the DMZ, and other locations.