Shown above is the Hwasong-15 ballistic missile of North Korea. Captured photo of Korean Central News Agency video clip

Experts warn of hasted conclusion on Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities

Recently, a local online media outlet reported that North Korea had at least 12 continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with nuclear warheads, causing confusion.

The outlet claimed that it had acquired documents of the National Intelligence Service clandestinely reported to the Intelligence Committee of the National Assembly.

The documents reportedly noted that Pyongyang had at least four Hwasong-14 missiles, four Hwasong-15 missiles, and four Hwasong-16 missiles that could carry nuclear warheads.

However, experts warn of hasted conclusions on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.

“Informed institutes estimate that North Korea has nuclear warheads amounting to some 20 or 30. Hence, the estimate of NIS at 12 appears to be reasonable,” Prof. Kim Jong-dae at Yonsei University said.

“But Hwasong-14, 15, 17 missiles are not deployed, yet. I think that North Korea still lacks the technologies to make ICBMs re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. Hence, I don’t accept the reported conclusions of the NIS.”

The Hwasong-14 is a mobile ICBM, while the Hwasong-15 is the first North Korean ballistic missile, which can theoretically reach all of the U.S. mainland. The Hwasong-17 is a two-stage ICBM.

Observers admitted the North’s capability of making missiles fly higher and longer, but they cast suspicious eyes on its re-entry technology.

“To master the re-entry technologies, North Korea should set up ground test facilities. But the country does not have them,” Kim said.

A Sejong Institute researcher agreed.

“North Korea strives to show off its military power after the new president took office in South Korea. What it really wants is to gain the recognition as a nuclear power,” said the researcher who asked not to be named.

“But there are suspicions on whether the North really built lighter and slimmer nuclear warheads and the country’s ICBM would really work.”

Indeed, North Korea made military provocations after the inauguration of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration early last month by firing long-range missiles.

Just after U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Seoul late last month, the country test-launched a suspected ICBM and two shorter-range missiles into the sea.

This month, the communist country test-launched a record eight ballistic missiles on a single day.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, noted that the United States and its allies had come up with suspicions about North Korean ICBMs.

“To be a successful ICBM with nuclear warheads, it has to meet three requirements of flying some 15,000 kilometers, having the re-entry technology, and exploding at the right height,” Yang said.

“The North showed off the first requirement in a video clip, but not the second and third ones. Hence, there are doubts about them.”

Yang guessed that North Korea would also have the second and third capabilities, although the technological level might be somewhat low from the perspective of the United States.

Kevin Chung studied literature in Seoul. He is interested in various areas. He can be reached at or 82-2-6956-6698.