Can North Korea actually fire a nuclear weapon at the US mainland?

Experts weigh in on the issue.

North Korea’s Hwasong-15 ballistic missile test on Wednesday could have a range of as much as 13,035 km., according to the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists – more than enough to hit anywhere on the US mainland.
In addition, in September, the North’s sixth nuclear test was viewed by most experts as having either shown Pyongyang had mastered thermonuclear technology or at least boosted atomic bomb technology.
That could mean the US is out of time for preventing North Korea from achieving the capability to threaten it, and has moved on to managing that threat.
Still, there are some technical issues North Korea must overcome, and there are a range of opinions on where things stand and what to do.
Asked whether it is inevitable that North Korea will soon have the ability to hit the entire US mainland with a nuclear strike, INSS arms control director Emily Landau told The Jerusalem Post, “There is a very good chance” they will get that ability.
She said, “I do not see any ideas out there likely to work to ensure it does not happen. As far as North Korea is concerned, they are motivated and that is their goal.”
Landau did not want to speculate regarding some of the different estimates about whether North Korea would be able to hit the US next year or within a few years.
In terms of what to do, she said there are few good options, but appeared to endorse a US strategy of deterrence and containment.
“The US is deterring North Korea from even thinking about sending a nuclear weapon,” she said. “Redlines are being set. The redlines by the US are not redlines about missile testing.... The ‘fire and fury’ rhetoric in July” was directed at the idea of the North “showing it had a missile capability to reach the US mainland.”
But she said she does not expect a strong reaction to Wednesday’s test, as the Trump administration has realized “it cannot stop North Korea from testing missiles.”
Landau was emphatic in opposing any attempts at diplomacy with Pyongyang.
“There is no realistic option to get to denuclearization. People talk about this aim, but from that rhetoric...
I do not see a line in terms of actual realistic policy ideas. They talk about China cutting off the economic bloodline... but China is not willing to do that.”
Joshua Pollack, editor of the Nonproliferation Review and senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, also viewed the North’s achieving a status of being able to threaten the US mainland with nuclear weapons as essentially inevitable.
In fact, Pollack in some ways went further, telling the Post that the US has been in a state of nuclear deterrence with Pyongyang since 2006 in terms of its ability to fire a nuclear weapon on US forces and allies in Asia. He also said that since 2012, North Korea had effectively mastered the technology that would eventually make it capable of firing nuclear missiles at the US mainland.
According to Pollack, “the burden of proof should be on the skeptics about why it would not be possible” for the North to fire on the US.
“They have been there for a while. Now they are just making it harder for us to disregard what they have really done,” he continued, adding that the North’s test on Wednesday and its two tests in July were noteworthy moves forward in terms of successfully deploying technology they had made.
Pollack differed from Landau regarding diplomacy. While he does not think that the North would denuclearize, he suggested “just sitting down and putting a stop to nuclear tests and ballistic missile testing in exchange” for technology and economic aid that Pyongyang wants.
He said he understands that many “do not find them trustworthy and with good reason, but we need to turn the heat down before something bad happens.”
In other words, Pollack has no illusions about diplomacy achieving denuclearization. Rather, his priority would be to trade benefits for stopping tests, in order to avoid a nuclear escalation by miscommunication and some of Trump’s heated rhetoric, which Landau believes might achieve deterrence.
He also opposes spending more funds on US missile defense in Alaska, saying the US already has 44 interceptors which would give 11 shots at shooting down an incoming nuclear missile.
The Pentagon has asked for 20 more interceptors to get another 5 shots, he said. “It is nice to have more shots, but if you cannot hit anything... and they are not good enough... it doesn’t matter how many shots” you have.
Landau and Pollack also differ on the likelihood that North Korea will transfer its nuclear technology to Iran, which could increase the nuclear threat to Israel.
Pollack views this risk as remote, points out that sometimes technology transfers have even set countries back, such as when Pakistan “sold Iran junk and scammed them” for 10 years. He said that if Iran or any other country “wants to do it badly enough, they will do it, whether someone helps or not.”
Landau views it as a serious risk and suggests that Europe get onboard with the Trump administration’s push to strengthen the Iran nuclear deal to block Iran from becoming the next North Korea.