How close is North Korea to launching a nuclear missile?

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Watch nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker speak about North Korea’s nuclear program to NewsHour via Skype from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

As the Trump administration struggles with its response to North Korea’s recent missile tests, many have wondered how close the country actually is to being able to launch a nuclear attack.

Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, told PBS NewsHour on Monday that he believes North Korea is “quite a ways away” — four or five years — from doing that.

North Korea must successfully put a nuclear warhead on a rocket and deliver it. The nuclear warhead must be able to withstand extreme conditions of launch, flight and re-entry, he said, so what North Korea’s recent launches have done is “try to measure as much as possible those extreme conditions,” Hecker said.

The administration should remind the public that the United States has the conventional firepower to deter North Korea from attacking the U.S., to ease the public’s fears, he said.

His greater concern: “The North Koreans have brought their nuclear program far enough and with the current tension between North Korea and the United States, that we may stumble into a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula.

“I believe the North Koreans have already developed the capabilities to reach all of South Korea, all of Japan, and those nuclear weapons are in the hands of a leader and in the hands of a military about whom we know nothing,” said Hecker.

While looking at worst-case scenarios, however, “we’ve scared the daylights out of the American public,” he continued. The administration should remind the public that the United States has the conventional firepower to deter North Korea from attacking the U.S., to ease the public’s fears, he said.

READ MORE: North Korea keeps building better missiles. How should the U.S. respond?

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