Before a failed Hanoi Summit President Donald Trump had proclaimed in his State of the Union Address, that there had not been a North Korean missile launch in 15 months and that the USA „would right now be … in a major war with North Korea“, if he were not elected President of the United States. There have now been citations of President Trump suggesting that he didn’t believe that North Korea would really be a credible threat with ICBMs (Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles) to the USA „since I believe Putin“ who has suggested that they would not possess such capability.
Nevertheless, the 2019 Missile Defense Review of the United States Department of Defense states that North Korea „continues to pose an extraordinary threat“. This is explained with the statement that North Korea „has undertaken extensive nuclear and missile testing in order to realize the capability to threaten the U.S. homeland with missile attack“. That assumption however, is relativized in the next sentence, same paragraph: „As a result, North Korea has neared the time when it could credibly do so.“
Only a careful reader will understand the actual weight and meaning of this paragraph. It is a warning that North Korea might have the capability to credibly threaten the U.S. homeland in the near future – but apparently not yet today! The foundation for this interpretation rests in the mentioned „extensive missile testing“ over the past decade. One might well remember the almost weekly reports of yet another missile test flight of North Korea – in spite of extremely robust international sanctions – in the years between 2014 and 2017. This could have led an informed reader to the conclusion that: „North Korea has launched a lot of missiles – ergo they might have today long-range missiles. They now can threaten the USA.“
Two missiles might have the range to reach U.S. homeland
However, a closer look on the reality of North Korean Missile launching activities in that time reveals something rather different. Out of the past 61 launches recorded since 2014 (numbers may vary, depending on sources), almost two thirds were conducted with missiles using old Soviet Scud technology. Nine missile launches were done with the ill-fated Musudan (that uses a different kind of Soviet technology – but eight of these launches failed), and less than ten percent of the 61 launches were done with big solid-fueled missiles (not counting simple ejection tests, where a dummy missile is blown out of the launch tube).
Neither of these technologies however were relevant for the North Korean ICBMs, the big missiles which could actually threaten the Island of Guam or any other U.S. territory, namely the Hwasong-12, Hwasong-14, or Hwasong-15. All these missiles use engines that have a very familiar look for experts, reminding them of the old Soviet RD-250 technology. These three missiles were only launched up to nine times in total (including three failed launches of the Hwasong-12 which are not yet confirmed). The two „big boys“, the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15, which might actually have the range to reach the U.S. homeland, were only launched three times all together: The Hwasong-14 twice, and the Hwasong-15 only once.