North Korea has threatened Australia with “disaster” for aligning itself with the US against the country’s reclusive regime. Its most recent missile test — its largest yet — highlights its determination to be able to strike anywhere in the world.
Just how much of the world is at potential risk?
North Korea has a large arsenal of reliable short-range ballistic missiles. Under current leader Kim Jong-un’s reign, North Korea has tested these short-range missiles 50 times. Only one of these tests has failed under the current leader, signalling their operational readiness. The missile in this category with the longest range is the ER Scud. It can hit targets up to 1,000 kilometres away. That puts all of South Korea within range, as well as Osaka, Japan’s second-largest city.
Of particular threat to South Korea are missiles known as the Scud-C MaRV and Scud-B MaRV. These missiles are equipped with a manoeuvrable final stage. This could allow them to evade the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system, which the US has stationed on South Korean soil. The maximum range of North Korea’s medium-range ballistic missiles is about 2,000 kilometres.
These are also reliably tested — only two of nine tests have failed under Kim Jong-un. This puts the rest of Japan within range, including the world’s largest metropolis, Tokyo.
North Korea is also developing the capability to launch missiles from a submarine — but the technology is generally regarded as being some way off being deployed. Only three of six tests have succeeded under Kim Jong-un.
Currently, the submarine-launched missiles have an estimated range of 1,200 kilometres. The Sinpo submarine is estimated to be able to operate up to 2,800 kilometres from its base, so the threat remains localised in the Pacific. But disturbingly, submarine-based launches are much harder to anticipate than a land-based launch.
North Korea’s intermediate-range ballistic missiles have a maximum range of 4,500 kilometres. This puts the US military bases on the island of Guam firmly into range, as well as much of South-East Asia. The reliability of these missiles is less certain, with only three tests successful out of 14 conducted under Kim Jong-un.
However, six tests of an intermediate-range missile that only appeared this year, the Hwasong-12, are a cause for concern.
The first three of these tests were all failures but at least two of the most recent three were successful. Two of the Hwasong-12 tests flew over Japan (approximate landing locations shown), and some experts believe its most recent successful test on September 15 could signal this missile’s operational readiness. North Korea has also conducted two successful tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, this year.
After the first test, experts estimated its range to be about 8,500 kilometres, which would put the US state of Alaska into range. It would also put many parts of Australia into range. However, the second test gave the missile an even higher estimated range of 10,000 kilometres. With this range, all of Australia would be in striking distance.
It could hit Los Angeles…
Most of Europe…
And even New Zealand.
As the crow flies, New York and Washington appear to be out of range. But experts have noted that the rotation of the earth increases the range of missiles fired in an easterly direction.
Another ICBM test was conducted on November 29, 2017, heralding the arrival of a new class of ICBM — the Hwasong-15 The missile flew higher and for longer than any other previous North Korean missile test, and gave it a range of around 13,000 kilometres. This puts all of the continental US into range …
But experts have noted that the payload used in the test may have been lighter than before. If true, a missile carrying a heavier nuclear or munitions payload may not be able to reach this distance. Furthermore it’s currently unclear if North Korea has built a re-entry vehicle that won’t burn up in the atmosphere. However, this is old technology and if the regime has not already mastered it, experts say it is not far off.
There is also some contention over whether North Korea has miniaturised a nuclear weapon so it can attach it to these longer-range missiles. The regime claims it has already mastered this technology; experts say if North Korea doesn’t already have the capability, it’s a year or less away. But the design of the new Hwasong-15 could allow it to carry larger warheads, negating the need for miniaturisation.
Finally, North Korea also has an array of space launch vehicles, which it has used to put satellites into orbit. Some estimates put their reach at 15,000 kilometres in a three-stage configuration.
Under this scenario, the only continent that would be largely safe would be South America. But these missiles have only been tested with relatively light satellites, so it’s unlikely they would reach this far with the heavy payload of a warhead. Also, these missiles take days to set up for launch, which gives enemies time to prepare and possibly disrupt them, so they are highly unlikely to be used as offensive missiles.
So where do you go if you want to be as far as possible from the potential wrath of the hermit kingdom? The farthest land point from North Korea appears to be the town of Mar del Plata in Argentina.
But before you start learning Spanish, remember that most of the regime’s long-range missile capability remains largely untested. On the other hand, the north has an estimated arsenal of several hundred SRBMs and MRBMs, and if attacked, this is likely where their fire would be directed. This is perilous for the immediate region, as it’s likely the nuclear warheads that the regime currently has can already be attached to their short and medium-range missiles.
North Korea is also believed to have biological and chemical weapons arsenals that it could attach to these weapons.
So even if sanctions drive the regime back to the negotiating table and halt the testing of new missiles and nuclear weapons, North Korea’s neighbours will still be well within their sights. And with big players like the US and China jostling to protect their interests in the region, any attack will have wider implications for the whole world.