The Hwasong-14 is seen in an undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

North Korea’s Hwasong-14 intercontinental missile could easily hit Chicago and current US anti-missile defenses probably could’t shoot it down, according to analysis by Joe Brazda, a US arms control expert.

“Our model tells us it can reach at least as far as Chicago and perhaps further,” said Brazda, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) at Monterey. “Our model also shows there’s a high probability that they have a nuclear warhead that can fit on top of that missile.” If true, this puts East Coast cities like Washington and New York under threat.

MIIS is an elite California graduate school formerly known as the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Brazda says an MIIS team has been studying the Hwasong-14, a two-staged, liquid-fuel, mobile ICBM that has been tested twice by Pyongyang. The conclusions are based on missile path, engine, thrust and warhead data.

“We came up with what would happen if they actually launched that missile toward the US,” Brazda said.

He is skeptical that US interceptor missiles based at sites like the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California could bring the Hwasong-14 down.

“US anti-missile systems are deployed but not adequately tested. We don’t really know how effective they will be,” Brazda added, pointing out that North Korea would be firing more than one nuclear-tipped missile at the US in the event of war.

“We can’t prevent a North Korean missile from detonating in the US,” Brazda said flatly.

“US anti-missile systems are deployed but not adequately tested. We don’t really know how effective they will be”

His doubts about the effectiveness of US anti-missile screens similar are similar to those raised by missile expert Joe Cirincione in an analysis published on the military website Defense One on September 17. In it, Cirincione argued that any attempt to hit the intermediate-range ballistic missile fired by North Korea over Japan earlier this month would have been problematic as it was already too high for US Aegis or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile systems to destroy.

“Neither Japan nor the United States could have intercepted the missile. None of the theater ballistic missile defense weapons in existence can reach that high,” Cirincione wrote. “It is hundreds of kilometers too high for the Aegis interceptors deployed on Navy ships off Japan. Even higher for the THAAD systems in South Korea and Guam. Way too high for the Patriot systems in Japan, which engage largely within the atmosphere.”

Brazda noted that Pyongyang has made unexpectedly fast strides in nuclear and missile development and that previous western pronouncements that they are unsophisticated are no longer accurate. He warns that a North Korean “Map of Death” disclosed earlier this year showing likely targets in the US should be taken very seriously.

In addition to large West Coast cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, Brazda said probable targets include the large US Navy base at San Diego, and Seattle, Washington, where Ohio-class US nuclear submarines are based.

EMP test means war

Brazda was cautious about whether North Korea will test an electromagnetic pulse or EMP device.

He said a North Korean decision to test even a small electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon on a Pacific Ocean site might be viewed as an act of war by the US and its allies and is unlikely. His assessment follows South Korean speculation that the North might test for EMP effects in connection with a possible hydrogen bomb test somewhere in the Pacific.

Experts say such a live test, if it happens, would require a missile to carry a warhead to its target.

Various analyses, including one from 38 North, a specialist website on North Korea, have reported that Pyongyang may have developed an EMP bomb using accidentally transferred Russian technology.

Following China’s 1960s nuke strategy

Brazda said North Korea is closely following the strategic blueprint used by China in the 1960s in fulfilling its plan to become a nuclear power. He noted that US analysts then also doubted China’s ability to develop an effective nuclear arsenal. Beijing responded by launching a test missile armed with a live nuke warhead that detonated in western China’s Gobi Desert in 1966.

“From a historical perspective, North Korea is doing exactly what the Chinese did,” said Brazda. This suggests that Pyongyang could conduct a similar live-fire exercise to impress the US with its nuclear capability.

Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times

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