Latest North Korean ICBM can hit Washington, DC — and much of rest of US

Key Points
  • North Korea's latest ICBM may have enough power to hit Washington, D.C.
  • But that doesn't mean it's capable of striking the U.S. with a nuclear warhead
Latest ICBM capable of reaching US: Physicist
Latest ICBM capable of reaching US: Physicist

The intercontinental ballistic missile launched by North Korea on Tuesday has the power to reach Washington, D.C. — and much of the rest of the United States, experts said.

In contrast, Pyongyang's earlier ICBM test in late July was believed to be capable of hitting a bit more than half of the continental U.S., but not Washington.

The latest ICBM, fired during the middle of the night in North Korea, soared as high as 4,500 kilometers above Earth and landed nearly 1,000 km from its launch site, falling into the Sea of Japan. During the 50-minute test, the missile "went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they've taken," said Defense Secretary James Mattis.

If the missile had flown on a standard trajectory rather than Tuesday's lofted trajectory, it would have a range of more than 13,000 kilometers, according to David Wright, co-director of the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit advocacy group.

"Such a missile would have more than enough range to reach Washington, D.C., and in fact any part of the continental United States," Wright said in a note.

If the missile had flown on a flatter trajectory, it could have traveled more than 13,000 km, which "would be far enough to reach, for example, Washington, DC," echoed Scott Seaman, Asia director at consultancy Eurasia Group.

A statement released by North Korean state media on Wednesday said the latest missile was indeed capable of reaching the U.S.

Some experts, however, highlighted the unknowns about the missile's range.

An ICBM capable of reaching the west coast of the U.S. mainland is still a year away, according to Michael Elleman, a senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and an analyst for watchdog group 38 North.

A television screen in Seoul showing a graphic of North Korea's latest missile launch on November 29, 2017.

More tests are needed to establish the missile's performance and reliability, he added.

But even if the latest ICBM can enter U.S. airspace, that doesn't mean Pyongyang is capable of striking the world's largest economy with a nuclear weapon.

"We don't know what payload it carries so it's not clear it can carry a nuclear warhead to that range," Wright told CNBC. "The real question is: how small North Korea has made a nuclear warhead and whether it can carry a warhead like that on the missiles it makes."

Seaman mirrored those sentiments, noting that "the precise payload would need to be known to assess the missile's range."

If Kim Jong Un's regime releases high-resolution photos of Tuesday's launch — something it usually does after successful tests — that will indicate if "there's anything really new about this missile" or whether it's a modification of July's Hwasong-14 ICBM, Wright continued.

North Korean state media confirmed that the latest launch was a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile called the Hwasong-15.

Regardless, experts widely agree that Pyongyang has made significant technological progress on its missiles.

"It's a research and development effort on their part to continue building ballistic missiles that can threaten anywhere in the world," Mattis said on Tuesday. "The bottom line is it is a continued effort to build a ballistic missile threat that endangers world peace, regional peace and certainly the United States."