Information made public thus far indicates the missile the North Koreans have sitting on a launching pad has two stages, is liquid-fuelled, and, according to South Korea's National Intelligence Agency, weighs around 66 tonnes. US Vice-President Dick Cheney, not someone who habitually minimises security threats, has said Pyongyang's missile capabilities are "fairly rudimentary" and has expressed doubts the Taepodong II can reach the US.
Assuming the missile does in fact weigh 66 tonnes--and assuming it is powered by a Scud-like, low-efficiency motor, and the North Koreans do not have access to lighter airframes (fabricated from aluminium rather than steel)--Ted Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has made the following calculations:
If it is a two-stage missile, the Taepodong II will not be able to reach the US, and will not be able to carry more than a small payload. If it is a three-stage missile, it will probably be able to reach the US and will be able to carry a payload of roughly 320kg to 360kg.
Unless North Korea has managed to miniaturise its nuclear warheads--a most unlikely possibility--even a three-stage Taepodong II will be unable to carry a nuclear warhead, said Prof Postol, a former scientific adviser to the chief of naval operations. Its warhead will probably weigh around 450kg to 900kg, he said--too big to fit in the Taepodong II, as currently configured.
In addition, the missile is liquid-fuelled, he pointed out. Given the corrosive and unstable nature of the fuel, the missile has to be fired within days of being fully loaded. The Taepodong II is not designed to be kept fuelled for years, hidden in silos. And it is certainly not mobile, for mobile long-range missiles require solid-fuel propellants.
The bottom line: The Taepodong II cannot be launched without first being rolled out onto a launching pad and fuelled. And it cannot be fired without US satellites getting wind of the fact in advance.
Very interesting. What this article tells us is that the missile N. Korea has (and any it is likely to have in the near future), has nowhere near the capabilities we so feared. I do believe this changes the game somewhat. We are a lot farther away from any potential nuclear holocaust, even if by only a decade or so. That does give us some breathing room. It also lends credence to the idea that N. Korea is merely shaking things up to get some attention.