WASHINGTON – Korean Peninsula analysts agree that North Korea's nuclear missiles are gaining the momentum needed to hit U.S. soil.
It's the possibility of when and where the missiles are aimed that's causing experts to disagree.
The North Korean government is reprocessing fuel from its nuclear power plant to generate plutonium,according to the Arms Control Association.
Reprocessing the fuel is all that's needed for North Korea to make nuclear weapons.
North Korea is in the “big four” of nuclear threats,along with Pakistan,Iran and Russia,said Michael E. O'Hanlon,an expert on Asian security at the Brookings Institution.
O'Hanlon,author of “A ‘Master Plan' to Deal with North Korea,” said the country is a nuclear threat because it has a history of selling weapons and is still at war with South Korea.
Phillip Coyle,a senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information,said North Korea's cheap scud missiles,like ones he has viewed in person and in photos,have erratic flight paths.
This makes them good for offensive measures,but bad for countries working on nuclear defense,he said.
“No two are the same,” Coyle said. “It's like throwing a baseball with part of the covering coming off.”
Americans within estimated-target ranges of North Korean missiles are those stationed at military bases in Japan and South Korea. Alaska and Hawaii,the two westernmost states,are not at risk – all experts interviewed said.
The closest U.S. land region to North Korea is Alaska. Anchorage,the state's largest city with more than 275,000 residents, is about 3,000 miles from Pyongyang,North Korea's capital. Hawaii is more than 4,500 miles away.
Despite these distances,the National Missile Defense agency at Fort Greely,Alaska,is still preparing to divert missiles carrying nuclear warheads.
Mike Kucharek,spokesman at the Pentagon's U.S. Northern Command,said the fort's ground base midcourse defense was operating when North Korea failed to fully launch all seven missiles during a July 5 test. The long-range Taepodong-2 fell into the Sea of Japan soon after it was airborne.
The flight duration for the Taepodong-2 and the status of launch for the fort are still classified,Kucharek said.
Experts at the Center for Defense Information and the Brookings Institution estimate that it will be five to 10 years before North Korea can successfully fire intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Daniel Pinkston,a Korean expert at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies,said he disagreed with those estimates.
“It depends on the amount of testing they are planning. An intercontinental ballistic missile is years away. Intermediate,it could be sooner. It may be possible that they could do that now,” Pinkston said.
He added that U.S. military's involvement is almost sure to increase if North Korea keeps testing its nuclear weapons program in East Asia.
“I certainly think in their cases,the alliance commitments are incredible,quite credible and robust,” Pinkston said. “Carrying out some militarily aggressive actions against South Korea or Japan would trigger a U.S. response due to its alliance commitments.”
Victoria Samson,a missile defense analyst in San Antonio for the Center for Defense Information,said a North Korea without intercontinental ballistic missiles makes Alaska and the U.S. safe for the time being.
The farthest distance those scud missiles can travel is about 1,000 miles,Samson said.
“The idea of them being able to target a specific city or a point within a city is ludicrous,” Samson said. “The reason why North Korea has them is that they are very cheap and easy to produce.”
Samson said there is still a great concern. At least 10 nuclear weapons are in North Korea's hands,and every day it advances its ability to launch missiles at the U.S.