November 30, 2017


At roughly 2:47 AM Pyongyang Time (6:17 PM GMT) on November 29, North Korea test fired a ballistic missile from the Sain-ni area.[1] North Korea has since claimed that this launch was a new Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Initial reports from South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff indicated that the missile reached an apogee of about 4,500 km, and traveled 960 km downrange before impacting in the East Sea, within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).[2] The total flight time was reportedly 53 minutes. Without additional flight data, photographs, or video of the launch, it is difficult to estimate the exact range of this new missile with complete certainty; however, preliminary calculations place the range from 13,000 km on the high-end with light to no payloads to 8,500 km with more standard 500 kg payloads.


However, it is important to note—as Dr. Wright does in the last paragraph of his post—the Hwasong-14 and -15 missiles which were tested likely carried very small payloads, which exaggerate the range that can be achieved with a North Korean nuclear weapon. Indeed, the engineering model used for this analysis indicates the missiles were tested with a 150 kg payload. It is doubtful North Korea can fashion a nuclear weapon that weighs less than 100 kg. It is also unlikely that North Korea has enough experience developing, testing and validating the technologies needed to build a 50 kg re-entry vehicle capable of protecting the warhead during the high-temperature, high-stress environment experienced during descent through the atmosphere. As the figure below indicates, a Hwasong-14 or -15 fitted with a 500 kg payload (weapon plus re-entry vehicle mass) and flown on a standard trajectory has a maximum reach is roughly 8,500 km. This means Kim Jong Un’s nuclear bomb must weigh less than 350 kg if he expects to strike the western edges of the US mainland. A 600 kg payload barely reaches Seattle.

Hey, Seattle — does “barely” in range give you confidence?

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