As tensions continue to escalate between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, many Oregonians may be asking: What does that mean for the West Coast?
To answer that question, you first have to understand the technology at play.
North Korea is developing two new kinds of missile. The first, an intermediate range missile, can travel nearly 2,500 miles. That’s far enough to reach Guam, but not the continental U.S.
The second kind of missile is an intercontinental ballistic missile. Most experts believe that's still in development. But Michael Elleman, with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, thinks North Korea's ICBM would have the theoretical capacity to reach the West Coast of the United States.
“Its maximum range is highly dependent on the weight of the warhead itself and we don’t have a good measure on exactly how light a nuclear device the North Koreans can make,” Elleman said.
“I suspect they could reach Seattle, portions of the West Coast," he added. "But I don’t think they can reach Chicago or the Eastern Seaboard.”
Elleman said North Korea would need to launch several tests of an ICBM before it would used. He said those tests could happen at some point in the next year.
Despite harsh rhetoric on both sides, North Korea analysts have said Kim Jong Un’s defense strategy is not irrational. In their view, he’s taking a deliberate approach to meet perceived security requirements.
Elleman agrees: “I don’t believe that they will deliberately attack the United States out of the blue."
North Korea has recently said U.S. sanctions targeting Kim Jong Un were tantamount to a declaration of war.
But that latest escalation in rhetoric is not the first time North Korea has accused the U.S. or its allies of declaring war. In 2013, North Korea said it was in a "state of war" with South Korea, after its nuclear tests were internationally condemned.
In the current situation, Elleman said he is primarily worried about "a series of misunderstandings and miscalculations by the United States and North Korea" leading to a conflict.
“Mistakes can be made. The situation can escalate and there could be an incident where a missile, loaded with a nuclear weapon is actually fired,” he said.
So if a weapon were fired, might it be aimed at Oregon?
“My guess is that [North Korea] would likely aim at an American military facility on the West Coast. San Diego might be one potential target, although it might be out of range,” Elleman said.
Other potential targets could be missile defense technology in Alaska.
The U.S. has a system designed to shoot down incoming missiles, but it’s relatively unproven. So it’s not clear how well it works.
“If the attack is limited to a single missile coming our way,” Elleman said, “I think that there’s a pretty good chance that we would succeed in intercepting it.”
One of the biggest questions surrounding North Korea’s missiles are their accuracy, according to Elleman.
Excessive shaking during take-off and re-entry make it difficult to construct effective guidance systems. And while the U.S. monitors North Korean tests, it does not know where missiles are aimed upon launch, and therefore it doesn’t know how accurate they are.
Ultimately, Elleman believes Americans should not lose sleep over the threat. But, he said, he’d be more comfortable if the rhetoric were reduced and a military channel of communication opened between the two countries.