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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, August 13, 2017 1:00 am

Questions remain on N. Korea capability

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – U.S. intelligence officials are pretty sure North Korea can put a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental missile that could reach the United States. But experts aren't convinced the bomb could make it all that way intact.

They cite lingering questions about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's nuclear know-how.

“I don't think North Korea has a good measure of how accurate the missile is at this point,” said Michael Elleman, an expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “They don't know if the re-entry technologies will really hold up – whether the bomb will survive the trip.”

North Korea has short-range missiles that can hit its neighbors. It has tested an intermediate one that could strike Guam, a U.S. territory, as well as a longer-range missile that could reach Hawaii and perhaps the U.S. West Coast. The intermediate and long-range missiles are still being developed and it's still questionable whether they can reliably strike targets.

The North must conduct more tests to master what is known as “re-entry” in missile parlance, experts believe. The process involves shielding a nuclear warhead from the high temperatures and force it faces when it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere at about 15,500 mph.

“In principle, Kim Jong Un could hit the United States with a nuclear weapon,” said Elleman, a former scientist at Lockheed Martin's Research and Development Laboratory who also worked as missile expert for U.N. weapons inspection missions. “In practice, I think they are probably a half-year to a full year away from having something that will work more often than it would fail.”

Joseph Bermudez Jr., an internationally recognized expert on North Korean defense and intelligence affairs and ballistic missile development, agrees.

“Remember, they've only tested these systems very few times,” he said. Still, Bermudez added, North Korea is “on track” to figure it out.