We've had so many of our readers reach out to us in the past few days asking about North Korea. "What's happening? Should I be worried? What is your take?"
So we decided to lay out it for our friends and readers as clear as we can. There is a lot of information to shift through. Here is what we know...
1) What is going on?
North Korea, known as the Hermit Kingdom, is a dictatorship in northern Asia sandwiched between China and South Korea, with Russia and Japan close by. NK is led by Kim Jong Un, third in a family line of dictators that have made nuclear capability a main goal to maintain their reign. Backed by a million man army, they’ve made claims about their nuclear stockpile for decades, and now have offered more concrete proof.
Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have been locked in a verbal confrontation over their nuclear program and missile capabilities, with threats being issued in both directions. The US President has promised “fire and fury like the world has never seen” in response to any attack. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated “the political and diplomatic efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to the point of denuclearization have failed”, while the North Korean government held a news conference and declared that “the situation is already on the brink of nuclear war.”
North Korea has threatened to attack Guam, an American territory in the Pacific, and the island has released a two-page pamphlet on how to prepare.
2) Does NK have nuclear weapons?
Yes - in September, they tested a nuclear bomb with approximately the force of those dropped on Japan by the US at the end of WWII. Much smaller than those controlled now by the US or Russia, but able to cause plenty of damage- in Hiroshima, 50k died at the drop, another 50k over the next 2-4 months, with the number of deaths after that harder to measure, but numerous.
3) Are those weapons small enough to fit on a missile?
NK claims they are, and have released photos of a nuclear warhead that, if active, would be small enough to deliver.
4) Does North Korea have a missile that could reach the United States?
They likely do, as evidenced by the recent tests. To hit the continental US, NK would need a functional full-range ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile). They’ve tested just that as recently as July 28th, sending an ICBM on an extremely high trajectory that then crashed down into the Sea of Japan.
The Hwasong-14 missile flew for roughly 45 minutes, traveled about 2,300 miles high and 1,000 miles laterally, according to analysis by US, South Korea, and Japan. Theoretically, a similar missile fired on a flatter trajectory could have the ability to reach the continental United States.
Experts disagree a bit on the range, as the payload and corresponding weight of this test missile is not known. It does seem clear that the latest missile is significantly more powerful than any earlier test, and chances are strong that US is now in range of a strike. Where in the US that range ends is being debated.
5) What will the US do in response to a nuclear missile launch?
If attacked by another nation with a long-range missile, we will try to intercept any using our missile defense system. This strategy is unreliable, and isn’t counted on as foolproof by policy makers. If that doesn’t work, their strike will hit on some level, and we’ll be left with retaliation measures. By that point, the damage would likely be great.
6) How likely is it that a major population center would be hit?
A precise target requires a multistage missile, a miniaturized warhead, and the ability to detonate and target accurately. North Korea hasn’t shown the world an ability to execute all of these together yet, but is theoretically capable of all three.
7) How much warning time would we have?
Minutes, not hours. The ICBMs that could deliver a nuclear weapon can traverse the globe in under an hour, and often much less.
8) What will happen in a nuclear attack?
If you are near the blast epicenter (within 1-5 miles), there isn’t much to be done, as the damage would be catastrophic. Outside of that area, there will be radiation, heat, and an electromagnetic pulse that will kill electronic devices everywhere. There would also be nuclear fallout to deal with - pieces of radioactive material that fall to earth after a nuclear explosion. The effects last for decades, affecting climate and crops.
9) What is the disaster response strategy?
That’s the tricky part. Scaled humanitarian relief likely won’t be able to enter the highly affected areas until radiation levels drop down, which takes time.
People living nearby the attack will be told to evacuate quickly to reduce radioactive exposure.
10) What to do if an attack is imminent?
The federal government’s emergency-preparedness website advises preparing beforehand and storing up supplies. Evacuation is likely to be ordered, as putting distance between you and radioactive material is the only solution. They suggest having food, water, first-aid, communication, light, hygiene, shelter and warmth all ready to go at a moment's’ notice. They also recommend having potassium iodide on hand.
11) So what should I do?
While it is important that calm heads prevail right now, it is important to take the simple, individual steps necessary to keep your family as safe as possible in the event of something catastrophic. Guam’s preparedness organization is suggesting the following:
- Build an Emergency Supply Kit (ours / checklist) with food, water, potassium iodine, first-aid, communication, light, hygiene, shelter and warmth.
- We mentioned Potassium Iodine - it blocks the thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine, protecting it and reducing the damage from radioactive materials. If taken in the immediate lead up to radioactive exposure, KI reduces the risk of diseases otherwise caused by exposure from a nuclear attack or accident. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it's a "reasonable, prudent, and inexpensive supplement".
- Make a Family Emergency Plan with a meet-up point, an evacuation plan, and education on taking cover and finding shelter.
- Make a list of potential concrete shelters near your home, workplace and school. These places can include basements or the windowless center area of middle floors in multi-level buildings.
Don't freak out. While the events of the past few weeks have definitely been troubling, there are several reasons to be optimistic. First off, war is in no one’s interest, least of all North Korea. Second, it’s been all words so far, with little action. Lastly, we’ve been in similar (if not quite as dire) circumstances with North Korea before, and cooler heads have prevailed.
Let’s hope for the best, but it’s imperative that we plan for the worst. These are strange times we live in for sure, and being prepared is a virtue.