North Korea's Missiles Reach Farther Than America's—What Does That Mean for Nuclear War?

Kim Jong Un watches a missile launch. Reuters

North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles can probably travel farther than American missiles, new research shows, but don't hide under your desk just yet.

A study from American University found that North Korean ICBMs can travel almost 2,000 miles farther than American ICBMs, traveling roughly 10,000 miles—far enough to hit Washington, D.C.

But there's a catch, experts say.

"There are a whole host of other issues to consider besides simply distance, such as the number of warheads, the accuracy of the [missile], whether it is able to handle a nuclear load, and geopolitical issues that would constrain their use, all of which remain in doubt in relation to North Korea," said Harrison Akins, a research fellow at the Howard Baker Center.

"The real threat from North Korea has to do with the potential for escalating conflict on the Korean Peninsula or targeting Japan, not sending a nuke across the Pacific to hit the United States."

Operational missile ranges of nuclear-armed states American University

The United States is estimated to have made more than 70,000 nuclear warheads since the end of World War II, more than all other nuclear weapon states combined. It's likely the U.S. would intervene if North Korea struck a blow against a U.S. ally like Japan or South Korea, both of which are perilously close to Pyongyang.

North Korea, meanwhile, is an insular country with very little information leaking. As such, there are doubts about North Korea's nuclear capabilities, and researchers are constantly guessing to determine the threat.

In July, North Korea tested a missile that the Kim regime said could reach "anywhere in the world." It's impossible to know whether that's true, but most experts estimate that North Korean missiles could reach the West Coast, or even Chicago or Denver.

North Korea is the only country to have conducted nuclear tests since 2000, but for now it's unclear whether the country has weapons small enough to fit onto an ICBM. And even if it do, the North Korean missile would have to be durable enough to deliver a nuclear weapon into the atmosphere above the United States and accurate enough to hit a target.

Only nine countries in the world currently have nuclear weapons: Russia, China, India, Pakistan, the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, France and North Korea. Russia's ICBMs can also reach farther than the U.S. missiles, according to the University's estimates. But Moscow isn't as unpredictable as Pyongyang.