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North Korea's nukes unlikely to hit U.S.

| Saturday, April 6, 2013, 9:12 p.m.

WASHINGTON — North Korea is widely recognized as being years away from perfecting the technology to back up its bold threats of a pre-emptive strike on the United States.

Some nuclear experts, though, say North Korea might have the know-how to fire a nuclear-tipped missile at South Korea and Japan, which host U.S. military bases.

No one can tell with any certainty how much technological progress North Korea has made, aside from perhaps a few people close to its secretive leadership.

If technological progress is true, North Korea still unlikely would instigate an attack because the retaliation would be devastating.

The North's third nuclear test on Feb. 12, which prompted the toughest U.N. Security Council penalties yet, is presumed to have advanced its ability to miniaturize a nuclear device.

Experts say that designing a nuclear warhead that works on a shorter-range missile is much easier than one for an intercontinental missile that could target the United States.

The assessment of David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security think tank is that North Korea has the capability to mount a warhead on its Nodong missile, which has a range of 800 miles and could hit in South Korea and most of Japan.

Siegfried Hecker at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, who has visited North Korea seven times and been granted unusual access to its nuclear facilities, is skeptical the North has advanced that far in miniaturization of a nuclear device.

The differing opinions underscore a fundamental problem in assessing a country as isolated as North Korea .

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