A top research group says prototype ballistic missiles seen at recent North Korean military parades may be more advanced than earlier believed, and may even be sophisticated enough to threaten the U.S. west coast.
Many Western analysts dismissed the KN-08 missiles as primitive, non-operational mockups when they appeared in photos at Pyongyang military parades in April 2012 and again in July of this year, but the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said Tuesday that the missiles, even if fakes, appear to be getting more advanced, and have reached the point of being what it called "scary good."
The institute's report said the missile mockups appear to show North Korea can assemble components and technologies "good enough to produce missiles with theoretical ranges from 5,500 to over 11,000 kilometers." That would easily be far enough for North Korea to make good on its threats of being able to strike the U.S. mainland with a nuclear warhead.
The report cautioned the KN-08s are "almost certainly" non-operational and would need to be tested at least once. It cautioned, though, that a test could occur any time, given the advanced state of the mockup hardware and recent satellite photos showing upgrades at North Korea's main missile launch site.
North Korea is already believed to have cleared a number of technological hurdles needed for an ICBM when it used its Unha-3 carrier to successfully launch a satellite into space last December. The move was portrayed by the North as a peaceful scientific mission but condemned by the U.N. as a banned long-range missile test.
There are other obstacles North Korea would face in delivering a nuclear warhead to the United States. It is unclear if North Korea's nuclear bombs are small and reliable enough to be placed on such a long-range missile. Experts say the North also still needs to make progress on designing a re-entry vehicle that could guide any intercontinental ballistic missile back to Earth after reaching orbit.
However, the U.S.-Korea Institute said the North's missile technology seems to be getting more advanced. It said that at the 2012 parade, the KN-08 missiles on display had several design inconsistences and sported warheads "that appeared to be quite shoddily made." However, a little over a year later, at the July parade, it said the most obvious issues seemed to have been corrected.
Some have suggested the KN-08s are a hoax, meant to extract more foreign concessions in negotiations over North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but the U.S.-Korea Institute's paper said the simplest explanation is that the missile "may be exactly what it appears to be: a developmental road-mobile ICBM of limited capability but still able to threaten the continental United States."