WASHINGTON A new assessment of North Korea’s nuclear capability conducted by the Pentagon’s intelligence arm has concluded for the first time, with “moderate confidence,” that the country has learned how to make a nuclear weapon small enough to be delivered by a ballistic missile.
The Defense Intelligence Agency’s assessment, which has been distributed to senior administration officials and members of Congress, cautions that the weapon’s “reliability will be low,” apparently a reference to the North’s difficulty in developing accurate missiles or, perhaps, to the huge technical challenges of designing a warhead that can survive the rigors of flight and detonate on a specific target.
It is unclear whether other U.S. intelligence agencies agree with the assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency, which has primary responsibility for monitoring the missile capabilities of adversary nations. In the case of Iraq, a decade ago, the agency was among those that argued strongly that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons.
Outside experts said the report’s conclusions helped explain why the administration had announced last month that it was bolstering long-range anti-missile defenses in Alaska and California, designed to protect the West Coast, and was rushing another anti-missile system, originally not intended for deployment until 2015, to Guam.
The existence of the assessment was disclosed Thursday by Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., three hours into a budget hearing of the House Armed Services Committee with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey. Dempsey warned that the conclusion could still be classified. The actual wording in the report was obtained by The New York Times.
The congressman’s spokeswoman, Catherine Mortensen, said the material he quoted during the hearing was unclassified. Pentagon officials said later that, while the report remained classified, the one-paragraph finding had been declassified but had not previously been released.
The report issued by the Defense Intelligence Agency last month was titled “Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program.” Its executive summary reads: “DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles; however the reliability will be low.”
At another congressional hearing Thursday morning, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, sought to tamp down fears that the North Korean rhetoric could lead to an armed clash with the United States, South Korea and regional allies.
Clapper said that in his personal experience, two other confrontations with the North – the seizure of the U.S. research ship Pueblo in 1968 and the death of two U.S. soldiers in a tree-cutting episode in a border area in 1976 – stoked tensions that were much greater between the two countries.
North Korea has now conducted three nuclear tests, including one this year, and shot a ballistic missile as far as the Philippines in December. U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies believe that another test – perhaps of a midrange missile called the Musadan that can reach Japan, South Korea and almost as far as Guam – may be conducted in the coming days, to celebrate the birth of Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder. At the Pentagon, there is particular concern about another missile, yet untested, called the KN-08, which may have significantly longer range.
“They now have a deliverable warhead,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department official now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “They don’t have anything that could reach American bases beyond Japan.”
But former Defense Secretary Robert Gates predicted in Beijing two years ago that North Korea could gain that capability in a few years. That is why the missile tests being conducted by the North, which had a series of spectacular missile failures before its December success, are being watched so intently.
“North Korea has already demonstrated capabilities that threaten the United States and the security environment in East Asia,” Clapper told the House Intelligence Committee.
He added that “we believe Pyongyang has already taken initial steps” toward fielding what he called a “road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile.” He appeared to be referring to the KN-08, provided to North Korea by a Russian company, and based on the design of a Russian submarine-launched nuclear missile.
Clapper referred to “extremely belligerent, aggressive public rhetoric towards the United States and South Korea,” by the country’s young president, Kim Jung Un. And he made it clear that getting inside Kim’s head, understanding his goals, had been particularly frustrating.
He suggested that while Kim’s grandfather and father had clear motives – to periodically threaten the world with nuclear crises and then wait to get paid in cash, food or equipment to lower the rhetoric – the younger Kim intended to demonstrate both to North Koreans and to the international community that North Korea deserves respect as a nuclear power.
“His primary objective is to consolidate, affirm his power,” Clapper told the House committee, adding that “the belligerent rhetoric of late, I think, is designed for both an internal and an external audience.” Asked whether the North Korean leader had an “endgame,” Clapper said, “I don’t think, really, he has much of an endgame other than to somehow elicit recognition from the world and specifically, most importantly, the United States, of North Korea as a rival on an international scene, as a nuclear power, and that that entitles him to negotiation and to accommodation, and presumably for aid.”
Other officials have said, in background interviews, that Kim is trying to get North Korea into the same position as Pakistan: an acknowledged nuclear power that the West has given up hopes of disarming.
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