How Close is North Korea to Nuclear Weapons?

The headlines all say that North Korea's successful missile launch today brings them one step closer to a nuclear missile, but there are plenty -- plenty -- more steps to take before they get there. 

Pictured: Scientists and technicians at the General Satellite Control and Command Center on the outskirts of Pyongyang watch the launch of the Unha-3 rocket from a launch site on the west coast, in the village of Tongchang-ri.
The DPRK launched a two-stage rocket that traveled about 1,600 miles before deploying what its official state news agency enthusiastically called a "satellite" that "successfully entered its preset orbit." That's a significant step for a country dreaming of frightening the globe with a fleet of ballistic missiles -- even the South Koreans haven't put anything in orbit by themselves yet -- but it's still a far cry from being able to deliver a working nuclear weapon to enemy territory like, say, the West Coast of the United States. There are still a lot of very complex technical hurdles to overcome.

For starters, the missile they launched today might have technically reached space (although Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is disputing that), but it certainly didn't come back. In order to threaten the U.S. (or most other parts of the world), North Korea's projectile needs to be able to survive re-entry intact, David Sanger explains in The New York Times -- and that's a trick the North Koreans have yet to even attempt. It also had no target. Every missile they've fired has either exploded or fallen randomly into the sea. There's no indication that they have the guidance capabilities to hit any specific place with any amount of accuracy. Not that they would need much to hit South Korea or Japan, but that's the other point: North Korea already has weapons that can reach their two biggest rivals, so on that score, today's test doesn't change anything.

Despite the fears of swapping out a harmless payload for a weapon of mass destruction, it's unlikely that the Unha-3 rocket they fired today could even carry one. The satellite that was launched into space weighed only 220 pounds, according to The Times, one-tenth the size of an average nuclear warhead.

The Atlantic Wire
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