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 (DIA), 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 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., who read what he said was an unclassified paragraph from the document about 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 on the assessment.
Notably absent from that unclassified paragraph was any reference to what the DIA believes is the range of a missile North Korea could arm with a nuclear warhead. Much of its missile arsenal is capable of reaching South Korea and Japan, but the North also has threatened to attack the United States.
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Late Thursday, Pentagon spokesman George Little issued a statement that sought to qualify the conclusion of the DIA, 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,” Little said.
In another sign of the administration’s deep concern over the release of the assessment, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper Jr., released a statement late Thursday saying the DIA report 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.”
Nonetheless, outside experts said the report’s conclusions could help explain why Hagel has announced in recent weeks that the Pentagon was bolstering long-range anti-missile 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.
Earlier Thursday, 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 U.S. 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. Clapper said he believes the aggressive rhetoric represents an effort by the country’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, 30, to show he is firmly in control, and should not be construed as a genuine appetite for war.
“I think his primary objective is to consolidate, affirm his power,” Clapper said. “Much of the rhetoric — in fact, all of the, of the belligerent rhetoric of late, I think, is designed for both an internal and an external audience.”
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. “We hope the North Korean authorities come out to the dialogue table,” said Ryoo, South Korea’s point man on the North. “We strongly urge North Korea not to stoke the crisis on the Korean Peninsula any further.”
Ryoo stopped short of calling his statement an official proposal for dialogue, but it was a considerable softening in tone by Park’s government. Until now, South Korea has categorically rejected any early dialogue with the North, believing that doing so amid a torrent of North Korean threats would amount to capitulation and would embolden the North’s brinkmanship.
In his first public remarks since the new tensions on the Korean Peninsula, President Obama called on North Korea to end its belligerence. He 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.
The report issued by the DIA 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.”
A spokesman for Lamborn said the material he quoted was unclassified. Pentagon officials said later that while the report remained classified, the one-paragraph finding had been declassified but not released.
Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.