North Korea has not yet mastered the technology to shield a nuclear warhead from the rigors of re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, U.S. experts said on Monday, citing video footage from Friday’s long-range missile test.
North Korea’s unusual launch at night allowed multiple cameras in northern Japan to capture the missile as it fell into the Sea of Japan. One of the videos showed a bright light in the sky before it disappeared behind a mountain.
Missile expert Michael Elleman, of the North Korea monitoring project 38 North, said the footage casts serious doubt on North Korea’s claim that it can shield a nuclear warhead from the rigors of re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
“At about 20 kilometers (12 miles) above sea level, the RV (re-entry vehicle) has become so hot that it begins to glow as its descent is recorded by the camera,” Elleman said. The re-entry vehicle then quickly disappears at an altitude of about 3 to 4 kilometers (1.8 to 2.5 miles).
“This occurs before the RV passes behind the mountain range and is obscured from the camera’s view, indicating that it disintegrated about the time it experienced maximum stressing loads,” Elleman explained. “Had the RV survived the rigors of re-entry, it would have continued to glow until disappearing behind the mountains.”
Elleman concluded in his assessment that the missile’s re-entry vehicle did not survive during Friday’s test. It is unknown if the re-entry vehicle survived during North Korea’s first long-range missile test on July 4, which happened during daylight as is usual.
“If this assessment accurately reflects reality, North Korea’s engineers have yet to master re-entry technologies and more work remains before Kim Jong Un has an ICBM capable of striking the American mainland,” he added.
In addition to questions about North Korea’s re-entry technologies, it is also uncertain whether the reclusive country is able to sufficiently miniaturize a nuclear warhead to place it on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
“No one outside of North Korea knows the precise status of its nuclear-bomb making capabilities,” Elleman said. He added that North Korea could be capable of constructing a nuclear warhead that fits into its long-range missile, but it may have to work on a lighter-weight bomb to reach the U.S. mainland.
Friday’s missile test demonstrated that North Korea’s missiles are able to reach large parts of the U.S. mainland, including major cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Chicago. It’s unknown what the missile was carrying; a heavier payload for a nuclear warhead would reduce the missile’s range.
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