This article has been updated from a previous version.
For the moment, the world holds fast to the hope that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un won’t attack the United States—not withstanding North Korea’s numerous tests launches with ballistic missiles in 2017 and Kim’s recent claim that his office desk has a button for nuclear weapons that can reach mainland America.
Any sign of escalation is a concern at this juncture—especially given President Donald Trump’s previous tweets that his military is “fully in place, locked and loaded” should North Korea continue with its threats and Trump’s response that he, too, has a button for nuclear weapons, only his is “much bigger.”
With two leaders armed with nuclear weapons and fond of brash rhetoric and macho posturing, it’s conceivable that a few rash words from either one or one missile landing anywhere near the Korean Peninsula could set off a chain of events that could look like—as Trump himself put it—“fire and fury.”
For starters, it is highly unlikely Kim would launch an unprovoked nuke straight for Washington D.C. Experts suggest the North Koreans are more likely to use nuclear weapons to try and stop a U.S. invasion—which is exactly why they are putting so much work into developing their arsenal. America is equally trying to use whatever means it has to convince North Korea to stop its pursuit of nuclear weapons, including Trump saying “all options are on the table.”
What you end up with is two sides showcasing how ready and willing they are to use military action— though neither side really wants it.
“It’s really about political coercion, that the other side is not going to get their way so let’s move into the next phase of this,” says Rodger Baker, vice president of strategic analysis at the U.S. geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor. “These build-ups lend themselves to small shows of action by each side. At this moment, the environment is such that those can get out of control rather quickly.
“You’re playing chicken—except with missiles, guns and big ships,” Baker adds.
Amid the build-up, Baker sees a scenario, however unlikely, that North Koreans fire four missiles near Guam, home to U.S. naval and air force bases, to prove their capabilities in hopes of deterring America from attacking. But North Korean missiles aren’t exactly the most accurate, so if one lands too short or too long—or gets a bit too close to Guam that Uncle Sam perceives it not as an attempted deterrent but rather offensive action on a U.S. territory—America could respond by striking North Korean missile launchers or launch facilities, Baker adds. “And then it just starts escalating.”
Trump could decide to take out Kim Jong-Un like his predecessors did for Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but that could force Kim’s hand. “What North Korea is going to do is nuke U.S. forces in South Korea, Japan, and probably Guam too,” says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Center of International Studies at Monterey. “They’re hoping we’ll be so shocked that we’ll stop.”
Should the U.S. keep going for Pyongyang, the capital, or attempt a direct strike targeting North Korean leadership, that could be enough to prompt Kim to hit the launch codes for intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBMs) aimed at mainland United States.
Supposing North Korea makes such a radical decision, where would it strike? Pyongyang has already unveiled a map of potential targets, notably Hawaii, San Diego (because of its major naval bases), Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana (home of the Air Force Global Strike Command Headquarters) and, yes, Washington.
But the first target with an ICBM might be a more symbolically important one, says Lewis, who is also the founding publisher of ArmsControlWonk.com. He predicts the North Koreans would aim for New York City—and Trump Tower.
In all-out nuclear war, leaders can’t expect themselves or even their families to be spared, Lewis adds. “If you’re Kim Jong-Un, you know that you and your entire family will be killed so you will try to kill Trump and his whole family. That’s how deterrents work.”
With North Korea launching ICBMs carrying nuclear warheads towards Manhattan, America would only have about a half-hour, maybe 40 minutes, to save millions of lives.
It wouldn’t take long—about a minute—until satellites and X-Band radars located in Japan picked up on the bright flames from the launching missile. The satellite would send a warning to a receiving station the U.S. has in Germany, Lewis says, which in turn would forward the information to U.S. Strategic Command located near Omaha, Neb. If they determine it was indeed a threat, the next person they’d contact is whoever is designated as the president’s crisis coordinator.
It would be eight minutes into the missile’s 40-minute flight towards Trump Tower before President Trump even knew about it.
“That’s why the president doesn’t need a second vote [to launch a counter strike] and doesn’t tell the secretary of defence,” Lewis says. “The command to launch can go right to the National Military Command Center and then out to the launch unit.”
There’s no time for a second vote. Nor would he necessarily have time to consult with any other political leaders.
But even before the president finds out about a threat, there are defence mechanisms in place. By the eight-minute mark, North Korea’s ICBM is no longer actively burning from its booster, yet is still visible to radars as it travels towards America. Once it reaches the vacuum of space, it will release its warhead—along with a final booster and some decoys to throw off detection systems.
“One way the adversary tries to confuse the defence is to add additional objects that might break apart at the final stage, so there’s a bunch of chaff and junk to confuse the radars,” says Laura Grego, a senior scientist at the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The decoys could look like warheads. The actual warheads could be disguised. And since most of the journey happens above the atmosphere, there’s room for plenty of lightweight decoys. Together, the final booster, debris, decoys and warhead are called a “threat cloud.”
How do you stop a warhead? It is, in fact, rocket science.
“Right now, there’s one system designed for that defence called the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system,” Grego says. “These are big powerful interceptors, meaning a big rocket launches a kill vehicle very quickly.”
The bulk of these GMDs are housed in underground silos in Alaska, and are designed to launch the interceptors—with sensors and adjustment thrusters—at the incoming missile before releasing what’s called a kill vehicle designed to ram directly into the target and destroy it from the high-speed impact. The kill vehicle is about the size of a standard refrigerator. But it’s not easy hitting a target about 1,000 km above the earth. “These objects are going so fast—it’s described as hitting a bullet with a bullet,” Grego says.
No wonder, then, that the interceptor’s current success rate in optimal testing conditions hovers around 50 per cent, which explains why America would shoot four or five interceptors at each target.
To increase the odds of intercepting the right target, a sea-based X-Band radar can give good look at the threat cloud to distinguish the warhead from the other junk—if it’s in the right position at the time, Grego adds. “You’re trying to look at is as long as you can to try and figure out the mystery of which is the [warhead].”
But if it can’t pick out the warhead, the defence system will have to try and intercept every target. Or at least as many as it can.
Under such a disastrous scenario, Lewis predicts the North Koreans would launch six to eight ICBMs carrying warheads—not just one. It’s impossible to predict how many would successfully launch. So far, North Korea claims to be two for two in tests with ICBMs, but even if true, that doesn’t mean they’re a sure-thing. Small samples sizes aren’t a reliable measure of performance.
Nonetheless, under the scary scenario that even one ICBM successfully launches en route for America, the window for intercepting it, Grego adds, is about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, because Manhattan-bound missiles would be following the shortest flight path from North Korea, the interceptors could be trying to take out the warheads above Canadian soil.
Not that Canadians should worry, Grego stresses. If the interceptor indeed hits its target, it’d be around 1,000 km above the surface—more than twice as far away as the International Space Station, which hovers around 400 km.
And if it misses? “I would think most of the interceptor would burn up before it hits the ground,” Grego says. “That’s not really endangering Canada in a significant sense. It’s not a nuclear weapon and it’s not explosive. These trajectories would likely land above the Arctic Circle in Canada—very low population density.”
Besides, the bigger worry for Canadians would be a nuclear warhead hitting its target near the U.S.-Canada border, or falling short in its path to America and striking Canada directly.
Needless to say, if North Korea managed to indeed hit New York City directly—a long shot considering how far the warhead would have to travel and its accuracy over such a distance—the damage would be frightening.
If a 10-15 kiloton improvised nuclear weapon set off in Times Square, 75,000 to 100,000 people would die within seconds, according to a June 2017 paper published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. (For comparison’s sake, the size of the atomic bomb that dropped on Hiroshima was 15 kilotons.) Human ashes would be indistinguishable from building ashes among those closest to the explosion.
Then there’s the injured from the blast alone—another 100,000 to 200,000 more—suffering burns from the heat or struck by some flying object by the pressure waves that span over a kilometer in all directions.
“People on the ground will literally be lifted up and thrown against buildings and cars,” says the paper’s author, Jerome Hauer, the former acting assistant secretary for the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Everything within a one-kilometre radius of the blast would be destroyed or seriously damaged—including hospitals, power lines and water pipes. The electromagnetic pulse from the blast could even wipe out communications systems, leaving medical personnel and first responders unable to coordinate with one another—as if overcrowded hospitals (and other hospitals no longer existing) wasn’t enough of a challenge—not to mention loved ones unable to let each other know their whereabouts or if they are safe.
Hospitals would be overwhelmed by walk-in patients alone, never mind the seriously injured being brought in via ambulance, Hauer says. “Think about 30,000 people needing IVs put in. Who’s going to do that? And can you get it done in time to salvage these people?” Meanwhile, anywhere from one-third to half of all first responders, doctors, nurses and other health care professionals will be unable—or potentially unwilling— to go to work, he adds. Bridges and tunnels could be either destroyed or unusable that getting to Manhattan from New Jersey or Long Island will be virtually impossible.
“Then there are those who will say I got to get the heck out of here,” Hauer says. “You’ll have this mass exodus.”
Meanwhile, more people would die from radiation exposure over the course of weeks and months. Survivors with acute radiation syndrome—depending on the dose—could deal with something as simple as diarrhea and vomiting to something as complex as bone marrow no longer producing either white blood cells for fighting off infections or platelets, the blood cells that help with clotting.
As for restoring the New York City’s greatness, “it could be years before you even begin to clean up the city,” Hauer adds. “Once you start, it takes decades to rebuild.” Large parts of the city, he explains, will become a ghost town.
Again, that’s if a 10 -15 kiloton improvised nuclear device went off in Times Square.
Now if we assume Kim Jong-Un’s warheads have the strength of their latest rounds of testing, they’d be around 20-30 kilotons, explains Alex Wellerstein, a historian of nuclear weapons at the Stevens Institute of Technology. If a 30-kiloton warhead were to explode above Times Square, according to a NukeMap created by Wellerstein, there’d be nearly 700,000 total fatalities and another 800,000 injured. The blast would wipe out most heavily built concrete buildings within a one-kilometre radius and radiation that—if untreated medically—would kill the majority of people standing within 1.5 km of the detonation. The thermal radiation would be widespread enough—23 square-km around the blast site—that third-degree burns could potentially hit those just across the East River in Queens.
All in less than 40 minutes from when North Korea pushed the button—and there will be no advanced warning for those on the ground, Lewis says. “They’ll find out when it goes off and they see the flash of light.”
Fear and revenge aside, the retaliation against North Korea would have to be calculated instead of “fire and fury”, explains Lewis. “Why would you take the victimized people of North Korea living under this horrible dictator and incinerate them? What are you going to do, nuke people in a labour camp? Kim Jong-Un clearly doesn’t care about those people. You need to get Kim himself and a nuclear weapon is probably not your best way to do that.”
Baker predicts one of two options in retaliation—if they aren’t already underway. The first would be a military response. “U.S. would do a very strike hard campaign to take out the regime and as much of its capacity as possible—everything shy of rolling across the border,” he says. The alternative? “You call up China and basically tell them here are your two options: We’re going to respond with the full force of the U.S. military on North Korea or you’re going to intervene in the north half of North Korea, go in on the ground and change this regime.”
North Korea loses the war—there’s no way around that—but it could still inflict serious damage on South Korea, Japan and America, which is exactly why the best case scenario is: no one launches a nuke.
Should North Korea fire a nuclear weapon, however, the best alternative scenario is America’s missile defence systems work and the warheads explode in space. A counter attack ends up wiping out several North Korean cities and military bases, and the war ends swiftly.
The worst-case scenario is North Korean nuclear weapons hit the U.S., America retaliates with nuclear weapons of its own, North Korea ramps up its attacks on South Korea in response—and tens of millions of people die.
“It’s a situation that should be avoided at virtually all costs,” Wellerstein says.
Which is why no one has been crazy enough to even entertain the threat of nuclear war. That is, until now.