North Korea nuclear missile capability: Do they have it or not?

The only declassified sentence in a Defense Intelligence report raised concern that North Korea might have the ability to miniaturize its nuclear weapons. Other defense agencies disagree.

Lee Jae-Won/Reuters
US Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) and South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se shake hands during their news conference at the foreign ministry in Seoul, South Korea, Friday. Kerry arrives in Seoul for his first visit to South Korea as secretary of State.

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Only one sentence in a US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report on North Korea was declassified, but it set in motion another political and media maelstrom as John Kerry arrives in Seoul for his first visit to South Korea as secretary of State.

The sentence said "DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles, however the reliability will be low.” US Rep. Greg Lamborn (R) of Colorado read it aloud during yesterday’s House of Representatives armed services committee meeting.

In other words, the DIA thinks North Korea might have nuclear weapons small enough to fit on the head of a ballistic missile, but even if North Korea does, they are unlikely to be capable of reaching a specific target.

Bloomberg Businessweek reports that an unnamed defense official says that the DIA assessment "doesn't reflect the consensus of the US intelligence community" and that the various intelligence agencies frequently have different threat assessments, with the DIA often giving "the most alarming view."

CNN quotes Pentagon spokesman George Little also urging a more nuanced view yesterday. "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," he said.

Bloomberg notes that Mr. Lamborn's district includes the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the US Northern Command, Peterson Air Force Base, and the US Air Force Academy, and that he is seeking more money for missile defense. 

The bungled intelligence leading up to the Iraq war still hangs over Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who are clearly seeking to avoid the perception that the intelligence community is "deliberately exaggerating" North Korea's capabilities, Bloomberg reports. 

Similarly, CNN notes that the DIA has been wrong in the past – in 2002 it produced an assessment that "formed the basis for arguments that Iraq had nuclear weapons."

Differing assessments can be attributed to the dearth of solid intelligence on North Korea, as well as variance in officials' assessment of leader Kim Jong-un's rationality. One view is that Pyongyang would not risk the possibility of "massive and possibly nuclear retaliation," nor the damage it could do to its own country if it tested a nuclear missile and it misfired, reported Bloomberg.

But concerns are serious enough for high-level state visits, with Secretary Kerry hurrying off to Seoul, then China, the country with the greatest leverage over North Korea. Kerry's goal is to convince China that its own "interests" are at risk because of North Korea's threats and that denuclearization of the North should be Beijing's goal, CNN reports.  

Mike Mochizuki and Michael O'Hanlon, coauthors of the book "Crisis on the Korean Peninsula," wrote in an Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times that while the uncompromising US response has been justified, the US needs to take a more "creative" approach. They caution against any actions that would make leader Kim Jong-un feel backed into a corner, and broach the unconventional tactic of temporary sanctions:

Temporary sanctions accomplish several goals. They constitute a firm response themselves. But because they do not last forever, they provide an incentive for better North Korean behavior. They also give a nod to China's worry that strong-armed international action against the Kim regime, however justified, is risky. Chinese leaders may or may not be right, but there can be little doubt this is how they think.

At this point it is too late to turn existing, permanent [United Nations] sanctions into temporary ones without any North Korean concessions, as that would reward Pyongyang's behavior. But we do need to look for ways to de-escalate this crisis. We also need to look for ways to more generally contain the downward trajectory of Pyongyang's relationship with the outside world. As bad as things are now, they can get worse if the regime reactivates its plutonium-producing reactor or expands its suspected uranium enrichment, with the possibility that bombs could be sold abroad.

The two authors acknowledge that their advice is "strange talk" amid such high tensions, but warn that without a clear strategy, the US leaves room for small actions to "metastasize." They urge the US to make promises of broad assistance and a removal of punitive measures against North Korea – or risk pushing Kim Jong-un further down the road he is on.

"We need to create a light at the end of the tunnel, even if the light will be very faint for some time to come," they write.

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