North Korea’s Impending Missile Test: FAQ

What’s the deal?
A couple of weeks ago, North Korea “announced plans to launch an Earth-watching satellite into orbit” using a multi-stage rocket. The announcement triggered international condemnation from the United States, Russia, South Korea and Japan, and even China, North Korea’s ally.

Why is it such a big deal?
“Officials in the United States, South Korea, Japan and other nations view the liftoff as a thinly disguised military missile test” ( The long-range rocket North Korea will test can carry peaceful satellites, but also nuclear warheads. North Korea has nuclear arms, but doesn’t currently have the ability to deliver them to distant targets like the United States. Given the nation’s past volatility and current state of transition following the death of Kim Jong-Il, many are concerned.

When will the launch occur?
“The launch is scheduled to occur between April 12 and 16 to commemorate the centenary of as part of the celebration of the 100th birthday of the late leader Kim Il Sung, the founder of the communist state and Kim Jong Un’s grandfather” (

This isn’t the first time, is it?
“The United States’ concerns about North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capability emerged in the 1980s when that country’s nuclear weapons program became apparent.” (Congressional Research Service). Since then, North Korea has attempted a series of failed missile launches, drawing condemnation and additional economic sanctions each time. A 1998 satellite launch failed, with the second stage of the rocket landing just off the coast of Japan. North Korea officials claimed that the satellite successfully played patriotic songs in space.

Have any of these tests proven successful?
A 2006 test saw the missile explode just 40 seconds after liftoff, in the first stage of flight (MSNBC). A 2009 redesign also failed, “about half way through an about 13-minute ascent. This plunged the second and third stages, along with the satellite into the mid-Pacific Ocean” (

Are other nations helping North Korea?

A Congressional Research Service report found that “North Korea is believed to have had extensive foreign assistance from China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran throughout the program.” The fear is that advanced technologies from other nations could accelerate North Korea’s progress by allowing the country to leapfrog the usual missile milestones. That said, China has already rebuked North Korea for annoucing this test.

Could a North Korean missile hit the US?

To know this for sure, we would need to analyze the third stage of their missiles, and so far their tests have failed to even reach the third stage.

“Once they are successful with a third stage they would have a missile that could reach the western U.S.,” according to Rep. Jane Harmon (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee On Intelligence and Risk Assessment


One report finds that North Korea’s most recent advances “would have the capability to reach the continental United States with a payload of 1 ton or more if North Korea modified it for use as a ballistic missile.”

“Some analysts speculate that a reduced payload configuration could deliver a 200 kg warhead into the U.S. center and a 100 kg warhead to Washington D.C., albeit with poor accuracy.” (Congressional Research Service). The same report notes that sea-launched missiles could also pose a proximity threat to the continental US, but anonymous US officials believe that North Korea does not currently have a submarine capable of transporting such a missile.

What would the damage be?
Nuclear explosions cause intense and varied damage. A nuclear warhead weighing 100 kg has an equivalent yield of 350,000,000 kg (or 350,000 metric tons) of TNT. (Nissani)

Conventional bombs destroy by producing a blast. At their center, they can only reach a maximum temperature of some 5000°C and they emit no ionizing radiation.4 Incendiary bombs destroy and kill by starting fires and by burning people alive, not through blast and ionizing radiation. While nuclear bombs produce far more destructive blasts per unit of weight than conventional bombs, they also produce devastatingly high temperatures (similar to those at the center of the sun) and radiation levels.


Damage would include an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) which could “disable electric power supplies, telephones, telegraphs, radars, radios, computers, and other electronic devices” and “incapacitate or severely cripple a nation’s military and civilian power and communication systems, thereby complicating retaliation and recovery in the affected area.” There would also be intense heat, a fireball, a blast, hurricane-like winds, and invisible but poisonous ionizing radiation.

Will we know when a missile is launched?
The U.S. and Japan were able to easily detect and monitor previous North Korean launches during the countdown stage, by land, sea, and air (

Would North Korea actually fire nuclear weapons?
There’s no indication that a launch is imminent, but any uncertainty involving nuclear weapons could have disastrous consequences.

Some experts voice concern over North Korea’s level of military spending in relation to its missile program. North Korea reportedly spends as much as 40 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on the military. North Korea’s apparent willingness to devote such a large portion of its GDP to missiles and weapons of mass destruction could be cause for additional concern when viewed in the light of their alleged cooperation with other countries. Evidence suggests that North Korea has had extensive dealings with Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, Yemen, and Libya on ballistic missiles and possibly even nuclear warheads.

(Congressional Research Services)

Is Kim Jong-un a more or less stable leader in dealing with nuclear negotiations?

Immediately following his father’s deaht, there was widespread concern that “the new leader, thought to be in his late 20s, has neither the résumé nor the skills needed to control the country in the rigid manner of his father and grandfather…And his father’s death has put him in charge long before he could gain the allegiance of older officials who could help him maintain power.”
(Washington Post)

The US and other observers were heartened when Kim Jong-un agreed to a food deal after years of stalled talks. In the face of widespread famine, Jong-un agreed to 240,000 metric tons of food in exchange for freezing nuclear devlopent and halting long-range missile launches and nuclear tests.

But it’s not clear what role the young leader had in the deal:

“We were sitting across from essentially the same North Korean negotiators who have been at this in some cases for, well, for decades.. . . The way that they presented the issues was quite familiar to us,” said a senior administration official.

(Washington Post)

And the announcement of the missile test immediately following (and negating) the food deal was disconcerting to observers:
“It suggests there’s not quite the unity of command, that the people doing the negotiating on food aid are not the same as those in charge of the missile launches,” Hill said.
(Washington Post)

What’s being done, diplomatically, to prevent North Korea from achieving launch capabilities?

Or perhaps the question should be, “What more can even be done?”

In addition to United Nations Security Council resolutions, the US has imposed many sanctions:

Trade is minimal and mostly limited to food, medicine, and other humanitarian related goods. North Korea has no advantageous trade status and is outright denied certain goods—including luxury goods—and trade financing, primarily due to its proliferation activities.

Foreign aid is minimal and mostly limited to refugees fleeing North Korea; broadcasting into the country; nongovernmental organization programs dedicated to democracy promotion, human rights, and governance; emergency food aid; and aid related to disabling and dismantling the country’s nuclear weapons
program. Arms sales and arms transfers are fully denied.

(Congressional Research Services)

As one scholar said, “Even if North Korea is to go on launching its missile or satellite, there aren’t any more measures for the international community to take…All possible sanctions have already been imposed.” And another: “The main option now is probably to go to the U.N. Security Council and argue that this is a violation of security resolutions on North Korea. But you may see resistance from China and possibly Russia on that.” (Washington Post).

Preceding the current negotiations are decades of stalled efforts and violated agreements to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear arsenal.

The US has announced that they will suspend food deliveries if North Korea violates their end of the bargain (Voice of America). North Korea considers their satellite launch peaceful, and not in violation of the agreement.

What will the US do in response?
In addition to scrapping the recent food deal, this launch will likely damage recently-thawing relations between the US and North Korea. Worth keeping in mind is that “U.S. policy toward North Korea, expressed both unilaterally and in the United States’ position in multilateral fora, is further complicated by other considerations—not the least of which include relations with other states in the region, security responsibilities with South Korea, trade with China, a determination to keep key stakeholders engaged in nonproliferation efforts in both North Korea and elsewhere, and finding the means to balance all U.S. foreign policy and national security interests in a meaningful way.” (Congressional Research Services)

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About mstem

Matt's a Research Assistant at the Center for Civic Media at MIT's Media Lab. He has spent his career at the intersection of technology and social change. He graduated with high honors from the University of Maryland College Park, where he wrote a thesis on the disruptive role of political blogs in journalism. He went on to join the strategy team at EchoDitto, a boutique consulting firm building cool technology for nonprofits, startups, and socially responsible businesses. Matt went on to direct new media at Americans for Campaign Reform, a bi-partisan grassroots effort, and the New Organizing Institute, where he helped to train the next generation of organizers. For most of this time, he also ran one of the most popular NetSquared groups in the world.