In a startling revelation that apparently took the Pentagon by surprise, a Republican congressman from Colorado, Doug Lamborn, read a porton of a Pentagon intelligence assessment during a congressional hearing yesterday that concluded with “moderate confidence” that North Korea has the capacity to make a nuclear weapon small enough to put on a ballistic missile.
Though the report by the Defense Intelligence Agency cautions that the weapon’s “reliability will be low,” it was a dramatic change from the contention of experts for months that North Korea was far from the capability to arm missiles with nuclear warheads.
Apparently the Pentagon was not happy with Lamborn for releasing the information, which he claims was unclassified, from the report issued last month by the Defense Intelligence Agency, entitled “Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program.”
The executive summary of the report says, “D.I.A. assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles; however the reliability will be low.”
While a spokesman for Lamborn, 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 not released. Lamborn has been critical of the Obama administration for failing to increase funds for missile defense.
But there was far from consensus that the assessment by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency is correct and the intelligence community was scrambling to explain the report. First of all, the DIA a decade ago was among those that argued most vociferously — and incorrectly — that Iraq had nuclear weapons, which struck a severe blow to the agency’s credibility.
James R. Clapper Jr., the U.S. director of national intelligence, 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.”
Pentagon press secretary, George Little, also issued a statement, seeking to qualify the report’s conclusion.
“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,” Little said.
Even South Korea piled on, with a spokesman for the South Korean Defense Ministry, Kim Min-seok, saying early Friday that despite various assessments, “We have doubt that North Korea has reached the stage of miniaturization.”
But outside experts had a different take, suggesting to the New York Times that the report’s conclusions could explain why Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has said the Pentagon was bolstering long-range antimissile defenses in Alaska and California, intended to protect the West Coast. The Pentagon is also rushing another antimissile system, originally set for deployment in 2015, to Guam.
President Obama, speaking to reporters after he met UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon at the White House, said, “We both agreed that now’s the time for North Korea to end the kind of belligerent approach that they’ve been taking and to try to lower temperatures.
“Nobody wants to see a conflict on the Korean peninsula. But it’s important for North Korea, like every other country in the world, to observe the basic rules and norms that are set forth, including a wide variety of U.N. resolutions.”
He said the U.S. would take all necessary steps to protect the American people.
While the furor was escalating over the DIA report, Secretary of State John Kerry was scheduled to arrive in Seoul on Friday, traveling to China and Japan after that. His goal is to encourage China to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, while he reassures South Korea and Japan that the U. S. remains committed to their defense.
North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests, including one this year, and in December shot a ballistic missile as far as the Philippines. American and South Korean intelligence agencies believe 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. The Pentagon is particularly concerned about another missile, called the KN-08, which is untested but may have significantly longer range.
“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,“we believe Pyongyang has already taken initial steps” toward fielding what he called a “road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile” —a clear reference to the KN-08, provided to North Korea by the Russians.
Asked if 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.”