How seriously should you take that scary intelligence report about North Korean nukes?

April 12, 2013

Kim Jong Un inspects "new" military technology made by unit 1501 of the Korean People's Army. (Reuters/KCNA)

We all became something of amateur intelligence analysts, whether we wanted to be or not, the moment that Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) read, during a session of the House Armed Services Committee, a line from the unclassified abstract of an otherwise classified intelligence report on North Korea. The Defense Intelligence Agency document, "Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program," included the alarming but deeply caveated line, "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."

That line was written for the intelligence community and for policy-makers accustomed to reading its work rather than for public consumption, but now that it's taken on the latter role there's no going back. For better or worse, we've all got to fold that out-of-context line from the DIA into our view of North Korea and its possible threat to the world. Ironically, that's exactly the sort of task that the intelligence community normally does on our behalf. Here, then, is an attempt to unpack this piece of intelligence analysis, its potential implications and – perhaps most importantly – how seriously we should take it.

1) What does the DIA assessment actually say?

We can only see just this one line from an abstract from a much longer report, so we're working with a fragment rather than the full assessment. But the line seems to say two important things. There is also, significantly, one thing it does not say.

The report seems to say that it's the opinion of the Defense Intelligence Agency (not the entire U.S. intelligence community – more on this later) that there's a "moderate" chance that North Korea has figured out how to build a nuclear weapon that could hypothetically be placed on a missile. If that moderate possibility turned out to be true, that would be a big deal: North Korea has detonated nuclear warheads in tests, so we know they can build them, but it's a very different and more difficult thing to build warheads that can be placed on missiles. They have to be "miniaturized" and made durable enough to survive the flight and to detonate at the right moment.

The second thing the report says is that "the reliability will be low." It's not clear what this refers to: a low reliability that a miniaturized, missile-ready nuclear warhead would work? That the missile would work? In either case, the points seem to be that, even if North Korea can put a nuclear warhead on a missile, they're not able to land it accurately.

Here's what the line from the report does not say: that North Korea has improved its modest missile capabilities. The country has no missiles capable of striking any U.S. territory, and its medium-range rockets are not tremendously accurate. So, just to be clear, this DIA report does not seem to be suggesting, even couched with "moderate confidence" or "low reliability," that North Korea can strike the U.S. with a nuclear warhead.

2) So this stuff about the warheads is all new and revelatory.

Actually this has happened before. In April 2005, almost exactly eight years, a senior military intelligence official told Congress that North Korea had the ability to build a nuclear warhead that could be placed on a missile. Then, as now, the Pentagon and other U.S. officials rushed to downplay the assessment. Then, as now, North Korea has not publicly demonstrated any such capability, nor has the U.S. publicly presented any such evidence.

3) What does it mean if the report is right?

It would be, to borrow from the report's language, a moderately big deal. North Korea has to tick two big boxes before it can have a nuclear warhead that could hit the U.S. The first is miniaturizing a warhead, which this DIA report seems to think the country may have done. The second is building a missile capable of accurately hitting the U.S., which North Korea has not done. Unlike the warheads, which can be tested underground, missiles have to be tested right out in the open before they can be made to work properly, and North Korea has so far not done this.

4) But the report must be true, right? It's the Pentagon's opinion.

This is where it gets trickier. We don't know how strongly the U.S. intelligence community, or even the Pentagon, takes this report. So far, people who would know seem to be throwing lots of cold water on the assessment.

Secretary of State John Kerry and the South Korean secretary of defense both discounted the report. Kerry called it "inaccurate" to conclude that the U.S. believes North Korea has built a missile-capable warhead. The South Korean defense secretary said outright that Seoul believes the opposite of the report's apparent conclusion. The U.S. director of national intelligence, whose office coordinates across U.S. intelligence agencies, said the report "is not an intelligence-community assessment," implying that other agencies may not agree.

5) So this is about non-military officials disagreeing with the Pentagon?

Not quite. Even Pentagon officials seem, after the fact, to be distancing the defense department from the report. A Pentagon spokesperson – speaking for the very agency whose intelligence arm authored the report – said flatly, "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." When Rep. Lamborn asked Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the report, Dempsey refused to endorse it. "You know, Congressman, with the number of caveats you put on the front end of this, I’m not going to — I can’t touch that one," he said.

But it's possible that this is not because the Pentagon thinks the report is necessarily wrong. It's possible those officials fear that people like you and me are likely to skip over the phrase "moderate confidence" and mistake their assessment of a possibility for a statement of certain fact. The report, after all, certainly seems to be a best guess about North Korea's nuclear capability, rather than a presentation of evidence.

6) It sounds like they think I should pretend I never heard that scary-sounding assessment.

Well, it's probably more that this one line was originally written for a very different context. When policymakers like Rep. Lamborn see these reports, they're part of a larger body of intelligence analysis and findings and assessments that are meant to help people like him make decisions. Policymakers get to ask follow-up questions, look into greater detail at things that surprise or worry them, compare assessments from other agencies.

We don't get to do any of that, much less read the rest of the report that this line came from. Without all of that context, it's difficult to know how seriously to take this apparently revelatory one-line assessment. It feels irresponsible to dismiss a piece of information that might just signal a major step forward for the very dangerous North Korea nuclear program, but so too would it a bit much to reframe our entire thinking of the North Korean threat based on this one fragmentary detail.

As it happens, that's precisely the sort of dilemma that intelligence analysts face all the time. But at least they get security clearances.

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Max Fisher · April 12, 2013