Pentagon: North Korea likely has nuclear warhead for its ballistic missiles

North Korea probably has a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile, according to a new assessment by the Pentagon’s intelligence arm that comes amid growing alarm over Pyongyang’s warmongering.

The conclusion by the Defense Intelligence Agency said the weapon would have “low reliability,” but the disclosure during a congressional hearing Thursday is likely to raise fresh concerns about North Korea’s capabilities and intentions.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) read what he said was an unclassified section of the DIA report while questioning Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a session of the House Armed Services Committee. Lamborn said the DIA had concluded “with moderate confidence” that Pyongyang “has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles; however, the reliability will be low.”

The reference to reliability presumably reflected concerns about the accuracy of the ballistic missiles in North Korea’s arsenal as well as the technical difficulties of miniaturizing nuclear devices.

James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, issued a statement Thursday night saying the DIA assessment was not the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community. “North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile,” he said.

Still, nuclear weapons experts said the assessment is the most specific attributed to the U.S. government on North Korea’s ambitions to develop a nuclear weapon that could reach U.S. troops deployed in the region.

“This is the clearest, most direct statement that North Korea has a miniaturized warhead,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a North Korea expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He said, however, that the finding is “consistent with a series of statements that have been made in the past” by U.S. government officials.

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.

U.S. intelligence officials said Thursday that they believe North Korea’s rhetoric represents an effort by the country’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, to show he is firmly in control, and should not be construed as a genuine appetite for war. They cautioned, however, that discerning the young leader’s intentions is difficult. Kim took power in December 2011 after the death of his father, and U.S. officials have limited evidence to assess his thinking.

“I think his primary objective is to consolidate, affirm his power,” Clapper told the House intelligence committee. “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.”

U.S. officials take the threats seriously enough to have beefed up missile defense systems on the West Coast and on the Pacific island of Guam. Last month, Adm. James Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that North Korea’s KN-08 missile “probably does have the range to reach the United States.”

Lamborn, who failed to draw a substantive response from Dempsey, said in an interview after the hearing that he chose to slip the assessment into the public domain because he worries the Obama administration is not investing enough in missile defense.

“My whole goal in bringing this to light was to make sure we don’t cut missile defense spending,” the congressman said. “At the worst possible time, the president’s budget does exactly that.”

Lamborn said he had great confidence in U.S. missile defense technology,but that Winnefeld’s statement and the DIA conclusion “taken together represent a serious potential threat.”

Lamborn said he received the one-sentence conclusion of the DIA’s assessment from a contact at the Pentagon intelligence agency. Lamborn said the portion he cited was an unclassified excerpt of the classified report. His office shared it with The Washington Post.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said he could not discuss the report in detail because it was classified, except for the passage the congressman disclosed.

Little added, however, that “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.”

Dempsey was reluctant to comment on the report, telling the congressman, “I can’t touch that one,” and noting that “it hasn’t been released.”

North Korea tested a long-range rocket in December, and two months later conducted an underground nuclear test. The U.N. Security Council tightened economic sanctions against North Korea in response, and since then, the government has threatened war against the United States and South Korea.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry plans to hold crisis talks with South Korean officials when he arrives in Seoul on Friday and follow up by lobbying China to toughen its warnings to the North, U.S. officials traveling with Kerry said.

“We have known for some time that North Korea is preparing a launch of missiles,” said a senior State Department official.

Anne Gearan in Kyrgyzstan and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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