There are two key elements: Does North Korea have a rocket that can hit California? And does it have “dozens” of nuclear weapons? (We will leave aside Rubio’s assessment that 32-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who has executed many officials since taking power in 2011, is a “lunatic.”)
Rubio spokesman Alex Conant provided an article that in early 2015 quoted the general in charge of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) as saying the Pentagon has concluded North Korea now has the capability to place miniaturized nuclear warheads on its latest KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile.
However, the article also noted that the missile, said to be mobile, has not been flight-tested, raising questions about whether it could hold a nuclear weapon. Moreover, the accuracy is in question. Adm. William Gortney also asserted that the United States was capable of deflecting a North Korean attack. (South Korea’s government immediately rejected the statement as alarmist, saying it assessed that North Korea had not made a nuclear weapon small enough to mount on a missile.)
The missile was first unveiled during a military parade in 2012, but questions have persisted that the display may have been a mock-up rather than an actual missile. In 2013, Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “We believe the KN-08 probably does have the range to reach the United States.” Some analysts have suggested the missile would have theoretical range of about 6,000 miles, which would put Los Angeles in its sights — assuming Pyongyang could actually target it.
But the capablities of KN-08 are still rather theoretical. Yet, another North Korean intercontinental missile, Taep’o-dong-2, could also possibly reach the United States. This is the official Intelligence Community assessment (from 1999):
“The TaepoDong-II in the two-stage configuration could deliver a several hundred kilogram payload to Alaska and Hawaii and a lighter payload to the western United States. A three-stage TaepoDong-II would be capable of delivering a several hundred kilogram payload anywhere in the United States.”
Some analysts jokingly call the lighter payload the “golf ball of death.”
A lot of this is guesswork, given how opaque the North Korean regime is. Different intelligence agencies do not always agree, though the military ones tend to see a greater threat from North Korea.
In 2013, the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded with “moderate confidence” that North Korea might have a nuclear weapon that’s small enough to be placed on a ballistic missile. (It also said the reliability would be low.)
But Director of National Intelligence James Clapper almost immediately played down the DIA assessment, saying that “North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile.”
As for Rubio’s claim of “dozens” of nuclear weapons, that appears to be an exaggeration. (Conant did not provide a source for that figure.)
The highest figure we could find was 20 nuclear weapons, from a Chinese estimate reported earlier in 2015 in the Wall Street Journal. But the Chinese also said that number could double within a year. Most U.S. experts believe North Korea has about a dozen weapons, but that North Korea has improved its production of weapons-grade material enough that the number of weapons could climb quickly.
The Pinocchio Test
Rubio leans a bit too far on his skis here. It’s a stretch to say that North Korea has “dozens” of weapons or to suggest that its rockets have enough accuracy to hit the Reagan presidential library. (We note he carefully did not say those rockets were capable of carrying nuclear weapons.)
But he was speaking at a live event and sketched a relatively up-to-date picture of the North Korea nuclear threat. So his remarks only merit a Pinocchio.
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