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North Korea Launches An Apparent ICBM


North Korea launched what it claims is a new intercontinental ballistic missile early on Wednesday. This is the third ICBM tested by North Korea this year. This one flew higher and for longer than previous tests, theoretically putting the entire continental United States within Pyongyang's reach, a capability that the North Korean regime has long sought. NPR science editor Geoff Brumfiel is here. He's been following this story closely.

Good morning, Geoff.


GREENE: So the alarming thing here, it sounds like, is just the distance that this missile was able to cover. Is that right?

BRUMFIEL: Yes. I mean, the missile only traveled about 600 miles, but it reached an altitude of 2,500 miles. Now, that's really high, way above, say, the International Space Station.

GREENE: Oh, wow.

BRUMFIEL: It's kind of like hitting a fly ball. So they put this thing way up into space and brought it back down to show how far they could fire it if they fired it at a lower angle. And independent experts are saying basically this missile puts everything in the continental United States within range.

GREENE: I see, flew it at a lower angle. So they're saying if we can fly this high up beyond the Space Station, if we actually flew more horizontally, it could go really far.

BRUMFIEL: Exactly.

GREENE: So what is the North Korean regime claiming that this means?

BRUMFIEL: Well, they say this is an entirely new missile. They're calling it the Hwasong-15. Now, they didn't release any pictures, but it probably looks a lot like the Hwasong-14, which was the missile they launched earlier this year. That's a big missile that can be put on the back of a truck and driven around so it's harder to find. And, you know, this is an ICBM-class missile.

Perhaps most importantly, the North is saying that, with this missile, they are now a nuclear power. They now have what they need to sort of call themselves a nuclear power.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about that for a minute because - is that necessarily true? Because - have they proven yet that they could actually put a nuclear warhead or device on one of these missiles?

BRUMFIEL: Well, they have. I mean, in some sense, yes, and in some sense, no. Now, they've proven they have this big missile. Earlier this year, they also tested a huge nuclear weapon - anywhere in the range of a hundred to 600 kilotons, according to independent observers. And that's really the class of weapon that the U.S. uses, say. You know, basically with that kind of a weapon, you know, if they can fit it on a warhead, as they claim they can, then yeah, they are nuclear power. Now, we don't know for sure if they can do it, but we don't have any reason to doubt them either.

GREENE: OK. So that's the final step, I mean, even though there's no reason to doubt it would be proof that they could take these nuclear devices, put them on an actual missile and bring it all together, which would be the really ominous moment.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. I mean, I would caution you, David, a little bit on that because I mean, they have talked about putting a warhead on a missile and firing it out over the Pacific and detonating it. That would be a major, major incident. We haven't had a nuclear test in the atmosphere in decades. And in fact, those tests major powers don't consider necessary, generally. I mean, the U.S. has only done that once in its entire history. They're very dangerous tests. So you can be a nuclear power without doing those tests. But, yes, I mean, it still could go that extra step.

GREENE: So in response to this missile test, President Trump said at a press conference, we will take care of it. It is a situation that we will handle. What does that mean? What can the U.S. actually do right now?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. I mean, that was a pretty muted response compared to what President Trump has said in the past. He's made some pretty bellicose statements. Other hawks have gone further. Lindsey Graham was talking about war shortly after the test, going to war if need be. That seems a little unrealistic to a lot of independent experts. I mean, basically what's happened is, the U.S. has kind of backed its way into a classic deterrence situation similar to what we have with Russia and China. The North has a pretty serious-looking capability. We don't know exactly what it can do. But, you know, if we try to hit them, they could hit us, potentially. They could hit our allies with a major nuclear weapon. And so we're at the sort of standoff we've seen with other powers. And, you know, talks have been difficult in the past so it does seem like a difficult moment. There aren't a lot of options.

GREENE: I'm just putting all of this together, and I have to say, Geoff, you're scaring me a little bit. I mean, if they don't have to do necessarily any other testing to be a nuclear power, they are declaring their nuclear power, they have tested these big missiles, they have carried out nuclear tests - I mean, how worried should Americans be right now?

BRUMFIEL: Well, I mean, it's a dangerous time. There's a lot of potential for miscommunication and miscalculation. But there is a way out. By declaring a nuclear power - by declaring itself a nuclear power, North Korea may be offering a window for talks. They may be saying, we don't need to test anymore. And so we may have an opportunity here to de-escalate the situation.

GREENE: NPR science editor Geoff Brumfiel talking to us after that nuclear test by North Korea. Geoff, thanks.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.