clock menu more-arrow no yes

The North Korean nuclear threat, explained

Experts are urging Trump to act now, while he still can.

North Korea has been showing off its latest range of ballistic missiles by launching them into the Sea of Japan and parading them around. The missiles appear to be getting more advanced — and that has a lot of people wondering how far these missiles can go.

This map, released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies Missile Defense Project, is helpful in understanding what kind of missiles North Korea has and how far it could potentially deliver a nuclear strike. But it doesn’t tell the full story as of right now.

The various North Korean ballistic missiles and their ranges
CSIS Missile Defense Project

Take, for example, the longest-range missile, or the Taepodong-2, which could supposedly put most of the US in danger. It’s an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, or ICBM, that the US and Soviet Union built thousands of and used to threaten each other during the Cold War. North Korea has been working on its own version of the Taepodong-2 for a while, but it doesn’t really work yet.

A working ICBM, which is made up of four missiles stacked on top of each other, can push a nuclear warhead into space before it re-enters the atmosphere over a target. This allows for a range of around 15,000 km and it’s the only way North Korea could attempt to deliver a nuclear bomb to the US.

But engineering the Taepodong-2 is tricky, and North Korea hasn’t successfully tested one yet. It has managed to successfully put the missile into space, but it has not been able to bring it back down to Earth. North Koreans reportedly have two other ICBMs, the KN-08 and the KN-14, but they are not yet ready to test either of them. So in reality, North Korea cannot hit the US with a nuclear ICBM today.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that North Koreans are getting close, and experts believe they will successfully test an ICBM within a decade, if not sooner. Their recent missile tests demonstrate that they are getting better, and the US intelligence community thinks they have successfully made a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an ICBM, arguably one of the most difficult steps in building one.

So what would happen if North Korea got a working ICBM? Watch the video above to find out what the implications are and why the US needs to stop the North Korean ICBM program while it still can.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.