North Korea conducted yet another ballistic missile test on Friday, but this one may have been the most ominous yet.  The North Korean Hwasong-14 missile, which derives its name from the Korean word for Mars, reached a peak altitude of 2,314.5 miles and remained airborne for a whopping 47 minutes and 12 seconds before ultimately splashing down into the sea between North Korea and Japan some 620 miles or so from its launch pad.

Experts agree that this is yet another improvement over previous tests, the most recent of which indicated North Korea had the capability to strike U.S. targets as far away as Alaska.

Friday’s test demonstrated a successful stage separation, as well as the reliability of the missile’s control and guidance systems during reentry.  While the brutal conditions the missile experienced during reentry may be even worse on a longer range trajectory, observations by U.S., Japanese and South Korean officials all seem to indicate that this missile is indeed an ICBM class ballistic missile – putting to bed any doubts that have been levied in the weeks since their last demonstration.

Demonstration being the operative term.  While there are clear benefits to these tests from a development standpoint, North Korea’s missiles named after the planet the Romans made their God of War, may one day deliver nuclear warheads to target zones as far away as the U.S. mainland, this weekend its primary payload was a message to the United States and its allies: North Korea will not be deterred in its pursuit of a weapons platform that can actually start a nuclear war with the U.S.

Two successfully ICBM tests does not necessarily suggest that Kim Jong-un’s regime has all the bugs worked out of the design however, and many experts disagree as to whether or not North Korea currently possesses the capability to miniaturize the nuclear weapons they have developed into a package small enough to fit inside a warhead.  Even cautious experts seem to agree however, that this most recent test indicates North Korea is far closer to having the weapon they’ve sought than many believed even a few weeks ago.

“The key here is that North Korea has a second successful test in less than one month,” Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said. “If this trend holds, they could establish an acceptably reliable ICBM before year’s end.”

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Elleman’s estimates place the range of Kim Jong-un’s ICBM at approximately 5900 miles which would mean North Korea is now capable of hitting Los Angeles with a nuclear tipped ICBM.  According to David Wright, a missile expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, that estimate may even be too conservative.  His analysis places the maximum range of the Hwasong-14 at closer to 6,500 miles – meaning cities as far East as Chicago and Denver are within striking distance, and Kim’s regime is now within just hundreds of miles of being able to target Boston, New York, and Washington D.C.

Wright explained that, by taking advantage of the rotation of the Earth and utilizing a flatter flight path than exhibited in the two recent tests, “Los Angeles, Denver, and Chicago appear to be well within range of this missile, and that Boston and New York may be just within range. Washington, D.C. may be just out of range.”

“It is important to keep in mind that we do not know the mass of the payload the missile carried on this test. If it was lighter than the actual warhead the missile would carry, the ranges would be shorter than those estimated above.” Write clarified.

Image courtesy of North Korea’s State Owned KCNA