By Bradley Graham and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 29, 2005
The Pentagon's top military intelligence officer said yesterday that North Korea has the ability to arm a missile with a nuclear device, stunning senators he was addressing and prompting attempts by other defense and intelligence officials later to play down the remarks.
The statement by Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby before the Senate Armed Services Committee marked the first time that a U.S. official had publicly attributed such a capability to North Korea.
Although U.S. intelligence authorities have said for years that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons and could probably reach the United States with its long-range rockets, they had stopped short of asserting that Pyongyang had mastered the difficult task of miniaturizing a nuclear device to fit atop a ballistic missile.
Later in the day, the Defense Intelligence Agency, which Jacoby heads, issued a statement seeking to portray the admiral's assessment as nothing new and still largely theoretical. It cited his testimony last month before the same committee, where he said North Korea is developing a missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead to parts of the United States.
But those comments dealt with the ability of the North Korean missile, known as the Taepo Dong 2, to go the distance with a nuclear warhead -- not whether North Korea could actually mount such warheads on its missiles.
Other DIA and CIA officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, went further in seeking to play down yesterday's testimony by suggesting that Jacoby had misspoken. They said the U.S. intelligence community's assessment of North Korea's nuclear missile capability had not changed. The consensus view, they said, remains that North Korea is still some years away from being able to put nuclear warheads on long-range missiles.
But several Senate staff members who witnessed the testimony and have access to U.S. intelligence on North Korea indicated that Jacoby's comments did in fact reflect some recent information they had seen, although they expressed surprise that the admiral had gone public with the new assessment.
"He may not have meant to say it in a public forum," one staff member speculated.
Another Senate official said there is considerable support in the intelligence community for the idea that North Korea has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead for a missile. He indicated that he had read such internal analyses in recent months but added: "There is a difference between believing something is true and having evidence that something is true."
President Bush, speaking at a news conference last night about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, said: "There is concern about his capacity to deliver a nuclear weapon. We don't know if he can or not, but I think it's best, when you're dealing with a tyrant like Kim Jong Il, to assume he can."
Jacoby's remarks were made in response to questions from Sen. Hillary Rodman Clinton (D-N.Y.). Senate aides said the questions had been carefully crafted in consultation with the committee staff.
"Admiral, let me ask you, do you assess that North Korea has the ability to arm a missile with a nuclear device?" Clinton said.
"The assessment is that they have the capability to do that, yes, ma'am," Jacoby replied.
U.S. estimates of North Korean efforts to develop nuclear weapons and build long-range missiles have critical importance for the Bush administration's vigorous effort to develop anti-missile systems.
They also bear on the administration's diplomatic drive in "six-party" talks with Japan, China, South Korea and Russia to halt the North Korean weapons programs. North Korea has refused to attend the talks since June and, according to U.S. officials, appears to have built up its stockpile of nuclear material.
Seizing on Jacoby's remarks as evidence the threat from North Korea's nuclear program is increasing, Clinton and Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging the administration "to engage in bilateral diplomatic efforts with North Korea to address this serious threat." The administration has refused to meet one-on-one with North Korea, except on the sidelines of the six-party talks, arguing that such a bilateral approach has proven ineffective.
The U.S. intelligence community concluded several years ago that North Korea had already developed a two- or three-stage missile that could strike the United States about 6,000 miles away. But the country has yet to flight-test such a missile.
Determining whether North Korea has managed to make a nuclear warhead for a missile poses even greater difficulties for U.S. intelligence analysts than assessing whether the Taepo Dong 2 can fly. The physical appearance of a warhead can provide some clues but is hardly conclusive evidence, specialists say.
U.S. officials also acknowledge large gaps in their knowledge of North Korea's nuclear effort. Since estimating a decade ago that North Korea had obtained "one or two" nuclear devices, the U.S. government has not provided an official update, although privately analysts have raised their estimates to an average of about nine nuclear weapons.
Jacoby said yesterday that he expected to have a new assessment to present to the Senate committee in "approximately two weeks."