Can North Korea launch a nuclear attack on the US mainland?

George Tenet has apparently said that North Korea has a missile capable of reaching the US mainland. The US government also appears to believe that North Korea has one or two nuclear weapons. This raises at least the possibility that N Korea can launch a nuclear attack against , say , Los Angeles.

What is the probability of this? How does this affect the North Korean crisis? If it is true, is this a turning point in world history?

This is an article which argues the North Korean threat is exaggerated:

The Taepo-Dong II missile was tested a few years ago - I believe the North Koreans claimed that they were attempting to launch a satellite. The missile travelled well over Hawaii, and then the third stage self-destructed.

The intelligence community has known about this missile for a long time. I believe it can hit Alaska or maybe Seattle, but I don’t know about Los Angeles.

Now, is it reliable enough for them to use up one of their only nukes on? I don’t know. If they start up missile testing again like they say they are going to, then we’ve got big problems. I’m still holding out hope that this is typical insane North Korean bluster, but if it isn’t I think we could possibly go to war over this. Not likely, but the possibility is out there. Not a pleasant prospect.

I also think that the escalating North Korean situation may force the Bush administration’s hand over Iraq. North Korea may be seeing the U.S. being tied up in Iraq as an opportunity for blackmail, and that’s got to be stopped soon. I’m not sure Bush can afford to park all those forces in the Gulf and leave them there for months on end.

Can North Korea launch a nuclear attack on the US mainland?

You bet they can!

Will they be successful?

Not one bit.

What you are forgetting is that if North Korea has a missile capable of reaching the US mainland, if the guidance system is accurate enough, and if they are too stupid to even try, the several dozen nukes pointed at North Korea from just off their coast will wipe out their country long before any missile reaches the US. Of course, this is no consolation to that point in America that is on the receiving end.

Rumsfeld has already ordered two dozen long-range bombers to an alert status if North Korea ups the ante. What Rumsfeld did not say is the US military already is on station just off the North Korean coast.

Umm, Duckster, you seem to be defining ‘unsuccessful’ as ‘we got them 3 minutes before they got us.’

So, at the end of your scenario:

  • NK is radioactive glass.
  • And so is Seattle and San Francisco.

Hmm. So what’s the win here?

You misunderstand. My fault.

There are still too many unknowns about North Korea’s capabilities. That scares the US. Hence the Rumsfeld public statement that the US is expressing the new pre-emptive policy, threatening to take out North Korea’s nuclear capabilities if NK gets to antsy. It’s high-stakes poker.

But while the media jumped on Rumsfeld’s public statement about alerting long-range bombers as an attempted preventative measure to warn North Korea, it’s what he didn’t say that is important. What Rumsfeld didn’t say is we already have assets just off the North Korean coast. NK knows that. It’s the hidden ace.

So if NK makes any moves in the wrong direction, there is the public possibility Bush might order a pre-emptive strike. But long-range bombers take time to reach their target and if our intelligence is not accurate, NK could launch before the bombers get there.

OTOH, that pre-emtive strike just might launch from just offshore. While NK is busy counting down until the bombers arrive, they are already toast from our other assets already on station.

So NK doesn’t try in the first place.


My recollection was it passed over Japan, causing fear and furor in that country. The missile fell into the Pacific shortly after.

According to a diagram halfway down”] this (a few years ago and so only projected) the TD2 could hit Alaska. I can’t find anything about one going over Hawaii, though.

If North Korea has a proven delivery system capable of hitting tragets within the contiguous 48, I bet we will see a fast escallation of sabre-rattling, followed by either 1- The Collapse of North Korea or 2- the military destruction of North Korea or 3- A gradual standdown after several High Profile “incidents” and a resumption of the status quo.

Ahem, this is the link.

[Daily Show]
This Taepo-Dong has been known to explode prematurely.
[/Daily Show]

George Tenet said that a missile of theirs could hit the West Coast in front of a congressional committee last week. They either have nukes already or will have them in a few months. Put 2 and 2 together, and you probably get 4. The answer to the OP is almost certainly “yes.” If NK makes even a vague military hint of mobilization, I betcha their silos are probably dust from conventional US assets before they can even say “ICBM.”

The main reason no one has said yet, is that North Korea knows damn well what will happen if they launched a preemtive strike. If they launch anything at all I doubt it will be directly at the USA. It would most likely be at S.Korea or Japan. This would be horrible in it’s own right, but the N.Koreans know if they do anything like that, especially if they aim at the US. They would be committing suicide.
That is the main reason NK won’t do anything. They will get some more aid, and eventually disarm or at least become flaccid.

I spoke with a collegue the other day who happens to be a S.Korean National. He said this sort of posturing from the NKoreans is nothing new. The only new aspect is that they are continuing with their bolstered nuke program. He also said that is going to be the first link in the chain that hangs them.

"Put 2 and 2 together, and you probably get 4. The answer to the OP is almost certainly “yes.” "
IMO it’s not so clear-cut. Even if they have got a missile that can reach the mainland there is the question of guidance and payload. Also their nuclear bombs haven’t been tested and may not be reliable.

The danger is probably more pshychological. Even if there is just a 10% chance of North Korea successfully nuking, say, Seattle how does that change American calcuations about attacking North Korea?

“If NK makes even a vague military hint of mobilization, I betcha their silos are probably dust from conventional US assets before they can even say “ICBM.””
Unfortunately the US probably doesn’t know where their missiles bombs are kept and they have several cave complexes which are very difficult to bomb conventionally.

BTW what about Hawaii? Is it within reach of their successfully tested missiles? A serious threat of attacking Hawaii will also be a big deterrent.

According to the OP, the missile was detonated over Hawaii, so I would assume the missile can reach Hawaii. That they have built an ICBM that can reach from North Korea to maybe Alaska is just sad… however, no matter how far this sucker can fly, my big question is, what is our current launch-under-fire policy? Last I checked, the policy was “no.” In other words, we would wait for confirmed nuke detonation before firing our own back. If they launched one, and Anchorage went bye-bye, we would get ready to nuke them back to the stone age, but we wouldn’t fire unless a second rocket hit the sky. If they’ve only got one nuke, it is probably sadly appropriate for us to make sure it’s a real threat before we escalate to full-scale thermonuclear war. We’d look pretty silly, having bombed them back to the stone age, only to have their own missile break up on re-entry and fall harmlessly into the sea…

All posts to date seem to be assuming that a missile would be necessary to nuke the US. How about putting one on a ship, and sending into New York harbor? Or on a drone or kamikaze plane?

If I were NK, and were feeling suicidal enough to actually use a nuclear weapon against the US, that is how I would do it.

Of course, NK is playing brinksmanship. They want to threaten as credibly as possible without ever actually using up their nukes, which would result almost instantly in their failure to appear.

Actually, this strikes me more as a “best-case scenario” if North Korea launched a first strike. End of NK as a nuclear threat, and minimal damage to the US and South Korea.

I am sure the US would target only military capability - not that this would help much in a country as small as NK.


On NPR this morning (don’t have a link as it hasn’t been posted yet) there was a panel discussion on just this issue. The two speakers were both of the opinion that the nuclear threat from N. Korea was grossly blown out of proportion, even calling the reporting “yellow journalism.”

In order for N. Korea to be a threat, according to them, it needs three things:
[li] A working missle[/li][li] A working guidance system[/li][li] A working ordinance system (not any ole bomb will do for an ICBM)[/li][/ol]
Apparently, N.Korea has not successfully tested the new missle that can reach the US. The system that Tenet spoke of is “a three stage version of the Taepo Dong 2…[and] it has not been flight-tested, so it is not certain to work” from a different source here

Additionally, the guidance systems are notoriously inaccurate. By analogy the panel related how Iran, who purchases missles from N.Korea, consistenly complains that they must buy the guidance systems from elsewhere, generally China.

Regarding the warhead, it was stated that a nuke for an ICBM is substantially different than one for a more traditional bomb. While it is assumed that NK has nukes, the panel stated that NK probably does not have the proper warhead designs for a nuclear ICBM.

So, while it is theoretically possible for NK to be threat, it is not realistically so as each of the elements are not sufficiently developed…according to the experts. Of course, I doubt they live on the West Coast whereas I do. Likewise, I’d be nervous if I was in Japan or Seoul right now.

If you want to see Tenet’s testimony it can be found here. It doesn’t have the Q&A session wherein Tenet stated that NK can reach the US, though.

Also, the previous missle launch by NK was over Japan, not Hawaii. See here.

Ok so it hasn’t been tested.

slight hijack

What if a missile misses and detonates a large nuclear device only a couple hundred miles off California. Aside from nice waves for San Diego surfers, what else would happen?

If no damage was done to continental US would we still send them back to stone age?

Every one automatically assumes that the US will vaporize anyone who uses nukes successfully on us. I think that is an extremely unwarranted assumption.

Assume there was major damage to the US, one of these cities obliterated: San Francisco, LA, Seattle, or Anchorage. Assume casualties are say 500,000 to a million dead. Also assume that we have definitive proof it was North Korea.

How will China, South Korea, Japan, and all the rest of Asia feel about a dozen or more nukes detonated in NK? You can bet those governments would be burning up the diplomatic channels telling the US not to retaliate with nukes, or any other form of WMD.

This is what we will hear from the Asians: “Hey, revenge is useless. You gotta be big about this. It’s too bad they killed or wounded several million Americans and trashed your economy, but DON’T be lobbing nukes into territory so close to us. If you do, there will be dire results.”

And Europe: “You can’t spread that much radioactivity into the environment. Too bad about San Fran, but if you weren’t such hegemons, these things wouldn’t happen to you. Don’t nuke North Korea, or there will be serious consequences.”

The Left through out the world: “You deserved it. Your policies against the 3rd world have driven the smaller governments of the world to the brink. There was no other way for NK to force you to pay attention to their legitimate grievances.”

Do you think there is any country in the world that would support the US retaliating with nukes? Do you think any of the left in the US would support nuking NK? Any liberal politician? The pressures to NOT respond with nukes would be ENORMOUS. I am not at all sure that any US president would respond with nukes, even Bush. Certainly not Clinton, JC, or their ilk.

Urban Ranger:

You wanted a cite for the missile test of the Taepo Dong II missile?

Here you go.

From the cite:

Original reports were that the missile was a Taepo Dong I, which has a maximum range of 1200 miles. It flew over Japan, and was reported to have crashed about 800 miles from North Korea. But subsequent analysis suggested that it was a 3-stage rocket (The Taepo Dong I is a 2-stage rocket), and it flew much further.

“If no damage was done to continental US would we still send them back to stone age?”
That’s an interesting question I have wondered about myself. On the one hand if there are few casualties it would be difficult to justify massive nuclear retaliation. On the other hand if countries get to take nuclear potshots at the US without a downside if they fail, that would weaken deterrence.

Perhaps there could be a middle ground in terms of a very tough but conventional military response.

Anyone know if there is an official US doctrine about responding to failed nuclear attacks? I suspect it’s going to become an increasingly important issue in coming decades with two-bit countries like North Korea possibly reaching nuclear status.

Whether or not the U.S. is hit with a nuke, it’s not going to respond with a nuke unless there is a tactical reason to do so. But that’s not likely, because the U.S. can smash any country it needs to without resorting to nuclear weapons.

Now, North Korea launched a nuke and then threatened to launch another, the U.S. could respond with nuclear weapons to stop it, because the response is proportional to the threat.

But if a terrorist nuke went off in New York, and was subsequently traced back to Syria, the U.S. wouldn’t just nuke Damascus. It would simply due what it did in Afghanistan - go into the country, overthrow the government, destroy most of the military, etc.