Reports issued Monday claimed that North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) might be capable of reaching the east coast of the United States, but there are some experts who are unconvinced that the missiles would cause real damage.
Video footage taken from a rooftop camera operated by Japan’s NHK television on the northern island of Hokkaido shows North Korea’s Hwasong-14 missile shortly before it crashed into the sea.
According to U.S. missile expert Michael Elleman, the extreme heat and pressure of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere caused Hwasong-14’s re-entry vehicle to “disintegrate” before it landed.
Because of this apparent failure, North Korea’s military will likely conduct more flight tests of the Hwasong-14 missile to make sure that its warhead could survive re-entry from space and hit its intended target.
“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 Elleman, an expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
He continued, “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 explained that the video showed the re-entry vehicle shedding small, radiant objects at an altitude of 2.5 to 3 miles. The objects dim and then quickly disappear at an altitude of 1.9 to 2.5 miles before passing behind a mountain range where they could no longer be seen. If the re-entry vehicle had survived, it would have continued to glow until disappearing behind the mountains, he noted.
According to The New York Times, Elleman estimates that fixing the design flaw “might take them another six months, but the key is that they’ll have to do additional flight tests.”
North Korea has stated that the Hwasong-14’s latest launch confirmed that it can fly long-range, but it also described the rocket as “landing in the target waters in the open sea,” instead of admitting that there probably wasn’t much material that even made it into the water.
Nuclear warheads are typically designed to detonate at lower altitudes shortly before impact, according to Kim Dong Yub, who serves as a defense analyst at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul. Thus, this latest test probably didn’t bring about the results that North Korean engineers expected.
“Considering the cost and efforts they put into tests, North Korea likely would have tried to detonate the warhead properly; they apparently failed this time, but could focus on this aspect in future tests,” Kim said. “Mastering re-entry is among the most critical military milestones the North has left, along with developing submarine-launched ballistic missile systems and solid-fuel ICBMs.”
The U.S. military has detected “highly unusual and unprecedented levels” of North Korean submarine activity and evidence of an “ejection test” as of late, according to a defense official who spoke to CNN on Monday.
An ejection test examines a missile’s “cold-launch system,” which uses high-pressure steam to propel a missile out of the launch canister into the air before its engines ignite. That helps prevent flames and heat from the engine from damaging either the submarine, submersible barge or any nearby equipment used to launch the missile.
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