A North Korea Attack Would Take Out Los Angeles, Chicago or New York, And Be The Deadliest In U.S. History

Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-14 is pictured during its second test-fire in this undated picture provided by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, July 29, 2017. North Korea could potentially fit such a missile with a nuclear warhead and reach most major U.S. cities. KCNA/Reuters

Kim Jong Un has largely defied the odds. Faced with mounting U.S. military pressure over his rapidly developing nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal as well as persistent accusations of human rights abuses, the third-generation North Korean leader has successfully developed a weapon capable of delivering mass destruction across the globe, the likes of which the U.S. has dealt to others, but has never before received.

North Korea's latest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch Friday probably burned out before hitting the waters near Japan, but its unprecedented height and range demonstrated a level of performance that experts say places U.S. population centers such as Los Angeles, Chicago and possibly even New York City within Kim's scope. They said North Korea's latest Hwasong-14 ICBM, equipped with a nuclear warhead about as powerful as the one used by the U.S. military against the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945, could perhaps deliver what would be by far the deadliest attack in the history of the U.S., and have warned that the military is not properly equipped to counter it.

Related: What war with North Korea looked like in the 1950s and why it matters now

"I don't have any real doubts they could get nuclear missiles here," Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review and senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, told Newsweek. "They've been working on this for decades, any details they haven't sorted out, they'll sort out soon enough."

Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-14 is pictured during its second test-fire in this undated picture provided by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, July 29, 2017. Experts say North Korea could potentially fit such a missile with a nuclear warhead and reach most major U.S. cities. KCNA/Reuters

The Hwasong-14, which was tested twice last month, is believed to be capable of transmitting a roughly 500-kilogram warhead with the capacity to produce an explosion equivalent to 15 kilotons of TNT, comparable to the so-called "Little Man" atomic bomb that was dropped by the U.S. Air Force on Hiroshima, killing over 75,000 people at the end of World War Two. Pollack said a modern version of such a warhead, considered low-yield by today's standards, has the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of people.

To quantify the deadly effects of a nuclear strike, nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein developed the aptly named NukeMap, which allows users to calculate various nuclear scenarios, including preset coordinates of major cities around the world and different types of weapons of various yields. For example, a direct strike with a 15 kiloton nuclear warhead on Newsweek's office in downtown Manhattan would kill an estimated 174,640 people and injure 291,630 more. An attack on downtown Los Angeles produces over 100,000 fatalities and a nuclear strike on the Capitol Building in Washington takes out about 77,490 people. These numbers account for only one warhead, and not multiple strikes, which some experts say would be more likely.

Wellerstein, who is an assistant professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology and runs the Nuclear Secrecy Blog, told Newsweek that analysts typically factor in two key elements when calculating the devastation of a nuclear warhead: explosive power and accuracy. While the previous figures were gathered using a 15 kiloton, he said North Korea may have detonated devices twice as powerful as that and that more powerful ones may be on the way. With such a warhead, even a relatively low-accuracy ICBM could "take a chunk out of Los Angeles pretty easily" and "put the hurt on it in a way that would still be unprecedented for America's own experiences."

"I tend to remind people that 9/11 was only 3,000 dead, when you look at these kinds of numbers," Wellerstein told Newsweek.

The second tower of the World Trade Center explodes into flames after being hit by an airplane, New York City, September 11, 2001 with the Brooklyn Bridge in the foreground. Hijackers affiliated with Al-Qaeda committed the deadliest act of terrorism in U.S. history, with a death toll of 2,996 in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Sara K. Schwittek /Reuters

Pollack echoed this point, saying it's easy to see why major cities would be "an attractive target" because of the high fatality rate even with relatively inaccurate missiles. A recent analysis conducted by aerospace engineer John Schilling and posted to North Korea monitoring group 38 North said the current inception of Hwasong-14 is likely only a threat to the U.S.'s West Coast, but that improvements made as soon as early next year could extend this reach to cities in the east, including Washington. Other experts have already labeled most of the U.S. mainland as a viable target.

North Korea's notoriously secretive nature makes it difficult to know just where Kim would strike if he chose to do so, but Pollack points to a 2013 photograph in which the leader may have let slip important state secrets. Using enhanced imagery, researchers were able to examine a war map spotted in a picture of Kim and his military brass and discover what they believed to be four marked U.S. targets, including those in or near Lousiana, California, Washington and Hawaii.

Pollack identified the likely destinations for North Korea's missiles, according to the map, as Lousiana's Barksdale Air Force Base, the Pacific Fleet's home port in San Diego, the Pentagon in Virginia and, finally, what's likely Pearl Harbor. The Hawaiian naval base served as the target for an Imperial Japanese attack that killed about 2,400 soldiers and facilitated the U.S.'s entry into World War Two in 1941.

As for the capabilities of the U.S.'s anti-ICBM systems to defend the country from such a historic assault, Pollack says he has "grave doubts about its ability to do its job." Schilling told Newsweek last month that "U.S. missile defenses under ideal circumstances work about 50 percent of the time," noting that the sudden launching of multiple, unknown ICBM's would be much more unpredictable than the usual test conditions. The Pentagon itself expressed concerns about the system's viability last month, with spokesperson Jeff Davis admitting it had experienced "mixed results."

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber (top) flies with South Korean fighter jet F-15K fighter jets over the Korean Peninsula in a move aimed to counter North Korea's missile test, July 30, 2017. North Korea has become increasingly frustrated with growing U.S.-South Korea military cooperation, which Kim Jong Un views as a threat to his government's survival. South Korean Defense Ministry/Getty Images

Experts say North Korea's nuclear ICBM threat to the U.S. is now a grim reality, however, there may be an even more urgent flashpoint. In response to North Korea's nuclear and ballistic weapons development, President Donald Trump has expanded the U.S. military's presence in the Asia-Pacific region, where tens of thousands of U.S. troops are already stationed. Most analysts agree that Kim's decision to nuke the U.S. would effectively be a suicidal one, but the fear of foreign invasion is exactly what prompted North Korea to develop such destructive weapons in the first place and Trump's pursuit of increased military on North Korea's doorstep has exacerbated an already tense situation.

During a telephone conference call Monday, 38 North co-founder Joel Wit noted that "the situation is bad now and it's going to get worse in August" due to major military drills planned between the U.S. and South Korea, with which North Korea has technically been at war with since the 1950s. Observers say Trump's willingness to flex the U.S. military's dominance in the region and refusal to engage Kim using diplomatic channels may form the catalyst for what could potentially be the deadliest, most destructive attack ever to take place on U.S. soil, even if it means Kim's ultimate downfall.

"It would be the dying sting of a bee," Pollack told Newsweek. "But if they're a bee, then we're allergic."