While North Korea’s two recent intercontinental ballistic missile tests demonstrate the capability to reach the continental United States, analysts have suggested the missiles lack an effective re-entry vehicle to deliver their payload.
American and South Korean experts reviewed footage shot by a rooftop camera belonging to NHK, a Japanese television network based on the northern island of Hokkaido, of the Hwasong-14’s re-entry vehicle shortly before it crashed into the sea, suggesting it failed to survive the extreme heat and pressure after re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
“In short, a reasonable conclusion based on the video evidence is that the Hwasong-14’s re-entry vehicle did not survive during its second test,” said Michael Elleman, an expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “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.”
Elleman argued the video showed the re-entry vehicle “shedding small radiant objects at an altitude of 2.5 to 3 miles” before dimming and completely disappearing at an altitude of 1.9 to 2.5 miles before it passed out of camera view behind a mountain range.
Had the vehicle survived atmospheric re-entry, Elleman suggested it would have continued to glow until disappearing behind the mountains.
Fixing the design flaw “might take them another six months,” he told reporters on a conference call organized by 38 North, putting North Korea on track to master the technology necessary to strike the continental United States as early as next year- a timeframe asserted in a recent report by the Defense Intelligence Agency.
“Mastering re-entry is among the most critical military milestones the North has left, along with developing submarine-launched ballistic missile system and solid-fuel ICBMs,” noted Kim Dong-yub, a defense analyst at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul.
Despite assertions made by experts, it is impossible to determine with complete certainty how North Korea’s missiles would perform in an actual military conflict. In both ICMB tests, the missiles were launched at lofted angles to artificially reduce their range in order to avoid neighboring countries like Japan.
In addition, the near-vertical flight paths placed unusually harsh conditions on the re-entry vehicles during their descents.
The US military has reportedly detected “highly unusual and unprecedented levels” of North Korean submarine activity and evidence of an “ejection test” – a test of the system that uses high pressure steam to propel a missile out of a submarine’s launch canister into the air before its engines ignite.