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North Korean nukes unlikely to reach US

North Korea recently boasted that its nuclear weapons could reach the US. This theory has been rebuked and challenged by many scientists in the West, though fear of an Asian arms race is developing.

Kim jong un nuclear weapons 2012 10 12Enlarge
This undated photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 8, 2012 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) saluting to pilots during a flight training at Unit 1017 of the Air and Anti-Air Forces of the Korean People's Army. (Korean Central News Agency/AFP/Getty Images)

NAGANO, Japan — South Korea in the last few days has been busy helping North Korea make the case that the North’s missiles are a major threat.

First Seoul talked its ally the United States into agreeing to an extension of the range of South Korea’s missiles from 300 kilometers to 800, sufficient to reach any corner of North Korea. North Korea slammed that agreement and upped the ante, boasting that it has intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States mainland.

Then, over the weekend, an unnamed senior South Korean security official was quoted as telling a group of journalists that the North already knows or soon will know how to mount a nuclear weapon on a missile.

While residents of Alaska and the US West Coast probably needn’t be in a rush to dig bomb shelters, the new developments do highlight a risky Northeast Asian arms race that involves not only the two Koreas and Japan but also China and Japan.

The North may or may not have achieved the range of which it boasted. After a failed satellite launch in April — which showed weaknesses in technology that is also used in ballistic missiles — some considered the claim a “rhetorical bluff.” That’s the way Scott Snyder, who directs the Program on US-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, put it in a blog posting

A different view came from Bruce Bechtol, Korea political-military specialist at Angelo State University in Texas. In an email he described an untested new North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile system, displayed in an April military parade. “If – if – it was successful,” he said, “it could reach the USA mainland.”

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“It is true that they have a missile with a proven range — 4,000 kilometers [2,400 miles] — to hit Guam,” an American Pacific island territory, Bechtol said. But “we are not used to hearing the North Koreans say that they have the United States in their missile range. This is new rhetoric.” Suggesting the claim might have some basis, he said, is the fact that “the North Koreans have never displayed a missile system — ever — in a military parade that was not deployed or about to be deployed.”

The so far untested system — some other analysts say only a mockup appeared in the parade — is what NATO designates a KN-08, on a transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) that uses a Chinese truck for mobility.

“More disturbing” than its range, said Bechtol, the author of "Defiant Failed State: The North Korean Threat to International Security," “is that because it is on a TEL it would be much harder to trace before launch than other ICBM systems the North Koreans have.”

“It is these other systems — Taepodong 1 and Taepodong 2 — that have proven to be failures several times: 1998, 2006, 2009, 2012,” he said. “If – if – the North Koreans think they can hit the American mainland, they have not proven it with the Taepodong systems — in fact, just the opposite.”

Even if the range is there, Taepodong tests so far have shown accurate targeting to be a serious problem for North Korean technology. “The safest place on Earth,” said former Japanese Foreign Ministry official Tomohiko Taniguchi, is “their targeted spot.”

“North Korea’s missiles pose a greater threat to endangered whales than to the people of Hawaii,” Ralph Cossa, president of Honolulu think tank Pacific Forum CSIS, added in an email.

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Up until Friday’s report there was further reassurance in an apparent consensus among experts that the North Koreans had yet to solve the technical problem of miniaturizing a nuclear weapon and mounting it as a warhead on an intercontinental missile.

The reported South Korean estimate to the contrary will not persuade everyone. A report out this month on a year-long study by RAND Corp. calls North Korea’s nuclear missile program a “paper tiger.”

“Potential delivery of nuclear warheads by North Korean missiles cannot be completely ruled out, but seems highly unlikely,” wrote RAND researcher Mark Schiller.

While, “taking steps to defend against a conventional [i.e.,