The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency has reported that North Korea now has some nuclear weapons small enough to be delivered by its ballistic missiles.
The DIA cautioned in a classified report last month that it has only “moderate confidence” in that finding, which also said the reliability of North Korea’s missiles “will be low.”
A defense official said the DIA assessment doesn’t reflect the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community. North Korea has separate nuclear and ballistic missile programs and has yet to demonstrate that it can launch a missile carrying a nuclear weapon, said the official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The DIA assessment surfaced yesterday at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee when Representative Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Republican who’s seeking additional money for missile defense, asked about it. His congressional district includes the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the U.S. Northern Command, Peterson Air Force Base and the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“It would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed, or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced in the passage,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement. “The United States continues to closely monitor the North Korean nuclear program and calls upon North Korea to honor its international obligations.”
U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also took issue with the publicized portion of the DIA report, saying in a statement yesterday that North Korea hasn’t yet “demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear-armed missile.”
“We don’t operate on the assumption that they have fully tested capabilities,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters today in Seoul, echoing Clapper and Little. North Korea’s previous nuclear tests prove the country has “some kind of device,” though that differs from having a militarized weapon with tested delivery, Kerry said.
While U.S. intelligence agencies often have differing assessments of foreign nations’ military capabilities, with the DIA frequently offering the most alarming view, such disputes seldom become public.
In this instance, said one U.S. official who has read the DIA assessment, Clapper and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel want to fend off allegations that the intelligence community is either incompetent or deliberately exaggerating North Korea’s military capabilities, much the way it mistakenly claimed Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and a nuclear program.
In the case of Iraq, though, President George W. Bush’s administration scrubbed most of the doubts from declassified versions of reports on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and leaked the most extreme assessments to selected reporters.
During yesterday’s hearing, Lamborn read the only sentence in the seven-page DIA report that’s been declassified. It says: “DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles however the reliability will be low.”
DIA spokeswoman Susan Strednansky had no comment about whether the sentence was accurate and in context.
An aide to Lamborn, Catherine Mortensen, said in an e-mail that the sentence is the only part of the document, “Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program,” that the congressman has read. A “dynamic” threat assessment is one that’s part of a continuing look at a potential danger, and therefore subject to change.
U.S. officials in other intelligence agencies are more skeptical about North Korea’s capabilities than the excerpt would suggest, according to the official who has read the DIA assessment and asked not to be identified because he has access to classified information.
The U.S. has little reliable intelligence on North Korea, and even less on the progress of its secretive nuclear and missile programs, the official said.
Even if North Korea has succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead, the official said, its reliability, as well as that of the propulsion and guidance systems of its missiles, remains questionable.
As a result, North Korea would risk not only massive and possibly nuclear retaliation if it launched a nuclear-armed missile, but also the danger that an untested weapon might explode on the launchpad or in mid-air.
North Korean Tests
Lamborn said in an interview that the DIA’s assessment of the reliability of such a missile as “low” means “the missile could be fired, but they don’t know where it would end up.”
North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in February, and after a series of failures launched a ballistic missile toward the Philippines in December.
The country has said repeatedly that the region is on the brink of war after the February test prompted tighter United Nations sanctions and the U.S. and South Korea began an annual military exercise last month.
Clapper told Congress yesterday that North Korea’s threats of a nuclear attack may have more political than military significance.
Leader Kim Jong Un’s “primary objective is to consolidate and affirm his power” as North Korea’s dictator since succeeding his late father, Clapper told the House intelligence committee. Kim’s goal “first and foremost is to show he’s firmly in control,” he said.
President Barack Obama said yesterday that North Korea should end its “belligerent approach” and “lower temperatures” to avoid a conflict on the Korean peninsula.
“The U.S. will take all necessary steps to protect its people and to meet our obligations under our alliances in the region,” Obama said.
Despite North Korea’s threats, it lacks the ability to hit the U.S. with a ballistic missile at this time, Defense Secretary Hagel said yesterday.
“Right now, I don’t think we believe they have that capacity,” Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee.
Vice Admiral James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered a more qualified answer to that question at a March 15 Pentagon news conference. He said North Korea’s KN-08 missile “probably does have the range to reach the United States,” though he added that its current state of development remains classified.
Lamborn, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said the DIA report and Winnefeld’s statement suggest the U.S. should be worried about a potential nuclear attack.
“This makes me concerned that the administration’s budget proposal cuts half a billion dollars from missile defense when we have these potential threats,” he said in the interview.
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to comment on the report at yesterday’s Armed Services hearing, saying he hadn’t seen it.
“We don’t know if North Korea can mount nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles, but there is a reasonable chance they can on at least their shorter-range missiles,” Bruce Bennett, a defense analyst at the Rand Corp., based in Santa Monica, California, said in a briefing for reporters April 9. Those missiles would be able to hit South Korea, but not more distant potential targets such as Japan and Guam.
“It is very unlikely that North Korea has intercontinental ballistic missiles that could deliver a nuclear weapon to U.S. territory,” he said.
Tracking a Missile
Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said the Defense Department is prepared to defend against any missile threat to the U.S. or its allies.
If North Korea fires a missile, “we should have a sense of where it’s going to be aimed,” Locklear told the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 9. “If we don’t, it doesn’t take long for us to determine where it’s going and where it’s going to land.”
Clapper, presenting the U.S. intelligence community’s annual global threat assessment, told House lawmakers that the untested Kim seems “more impetuous and not as inhibited as his father.” Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, died in December 2011.
Unlike his father’s extended “grooming period” of more than a decade, Kim was being prepared for only two to three years so “we don’t have a big track record on the new leader, not much history,” Clapper said.
Clapper said Kim is “underestimating the Chinese frustration and discomfiture with his behavior.” China, North Korea’s neighbor and chief economic supporter, joined in the latest round of UN economic sanctions against the regime.
To the extent “that anyone has remaining leverage -- because we have used up most of our sanctions options -- it’s clearly from the Chinese,” Clapper said.