The assessment for Congress said the reliability of such a nuclear weapon would be low.
WASHINGTON – A new assessment by the Pentagon’s intelligence arm has concluded for the first time, with “moderate confidence,” that North Korea has learned how to make a nuclear weapon small enough to be delivered by a ballistic missile.
The assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency, 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.
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 declined to comment because of classification issues.
Late Thursday, however the director of national intelligence, James Clapper Jr., released a statement saying that the assessment did not represent a consensus of the nation’s intelligence community and that “North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile.”
In another sign of the administration’s deep concern over the release of the assessment, the Pentagon press secretary, George Little, issued a statement that sought to qualify the conclusion from the Defense Intelligence Agency, which has primary responsibility for monitoring the missile capabilities of adversary nations but which a decade ago was among those that argued most vociferously — and incorrectly — that Iraq had nuclear weapons.
“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,” he said.
A spokesman for the South Korean Defense Ministry, Kim Min-seok, said early Friday that, despite various assessments, “we have doubt that North Korea has reached the stage of miniaturization.”
A call for dialogue
Nonetheless, outside experts said that the report’s conclusions could help explain why Hagel has announced in recent weeks that the Pentagon was bolstering long-range antimissile defenses in Alaska and California, designed to protect the West Coast, and rushing another anti-missile system, originally not intended for deployment until 2015, to Guam.
Clapper sought to tamp down fears that North Korean rhetoric could lead to an armed clash with the United States, South Korea and regional allies, and a high South Korean official called for dialogue with North Korea.
Clapper told a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee that, in his experience, two other confrontations with the North — the seizure of the Navy spy ship Pueblo in 1968 and the death of two U.S. soldiers in a tree-cutting episode in a border area in 1976 — stoked much greater tensions between the two countries. The statement by the South Korean official, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae, was televised nationally and represented a considerable softening in tone by President Park Geun-hye’s government.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, was to arrive in Seoul on Friday and to travel to China and Japan after that. He has two principal goals on the last leg of a six-nation trip: to encourage China to use its influence to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program and to reassure South Korea and Japan that the United States remains committed to their defense.
North Korea has 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 Musudan 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.
Clapper said 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 Jong 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 nuclear power.
“His primary objective is to consolidate, affirm his power,” Clapper said.
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.
As for what might change the North’s belligerent posture, Clapper pointed to the new leadership in China. “I think probably if anyone has real leverage over the North Koreans, it is China,” he said.
In his first remarks since the new tensions on the Korean Peninsula, President Obama called on North Korea on Thursday to end its belligerence. Obama also pledged to take “all necessary steps” to protect the United States from any North Korean aggression.
“Now is the time for North Korea to end the kind of belligerent approach that they’ve been taking and to try to lower temperatures,” Obama said after an Oval Office meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
On the streets of Pyongyang, North Koreans shifted into party mode as they celebrated the anniversary of leader Kim Jong Un’s appointment to the country’s top party post — one in a slew of titles collected a year ago in the months after his father Kim Jong Il’s death.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.