By Larry Shaughnessy
North Korea claims that it has ballistic missiles that can reach the mainland of the United States. If it does, the isolated Asian nation certainly hasn't offered any proof in spite of several attempts.
Even back in 2003, CIA Director George Tenet testified to Congress that the Taepodong-2 missile could hit the U.S. West Coast. But the potential has not translated into technical success.
Three times in the past six years, North Korea has launched long-range missiles that experts said had the potential of coming close to the U.S. mainland, an approximately 5,300-mile flight to the West Coast if fired in that direction. But all three failed, two of them almost immediately after launch.
Details of the launches:
- July 2006: North Korea startles the world by launching a Taepodong-2 long-range missile on the July 4th holiday. The missile flew for less than 40 seconds before it broke apart and fell harmlessly into the water about 200 miles west of Japan.
- April 2009: North Korea launched another Taepodong-2 missile. The communist regime claimed the missile carried a satellite that would go into orbit. But it later admitted that it failed to reach orbit. At the time, CNN quoted Japanese and South Korean defense officials that the missile flew for about a minute before crashing harmlessly into the sea about 2,300 miles from its launch pad.
- April 2012: As North Korea was starting a nationwide celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Ssung, the regime's founder, it launched an improved version of the Taepodong-2. It was again supposed to carry a satellite into orbit, this time in an orbit that would fly over each of the poles. But as in 2006, the missile failed spectacularly just moments after launch, with much of the debris falling into the water west of South Korea.
Three missile launches, three failures. But even if the North Koreans suddenly learn to launch a missile and get it to fly as far as planned, that still does not mean they are an immediate threat to the United States.
Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, wrote in 2009 that beyond its missile launches, North Korea would need to make three key additional breakthoughs to create a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
"First, North Korea has to develop a bigger, longer-range missile," he wrote, pointing out that it takes a big missile to fly that far with a heavy warhead on top.
"Second, North Korea would have to miniaturize its warhead," Cirincione said. The only nuclear device North Korea ever tested weighed 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds). That's 50% heavier than any North Korean missile is capable of carrying," he said.
"Third, North Korea would have to develop a re-entry vehicle for its warheads." Cirincione pointed out that warheads would have to survive extreme temperatures, vibrations and g-forces before it could destroy a target.
Cirincione concluded in 2009, "North Korea simply does not have the technical background or institutional capacity to achieve these three breakthroughs anytime soon."
Speaking to CNN on Tuesday, Cirincione said North Korea has not progressed on any of the three points.
"There is no evidence that North Korea is anywhere near capable of delivering a nuclear missile to the United States," Circincione added.