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, 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 huge technical challenges of designing a warhead that can survive the rigors of flight and detonate on a specific target.
The assessment’s existence was disclosed Thursday by Representative Doug Lamborn, Republican of Colorado, 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 E. Dempsey. General Dempsey declined to comment on the assessment because of classification issues.
But late Thursday, the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., released a statement saying that the assessment 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.”
In another sign of the administration’s deep concern over the release of the assessment, the Pentagon press secretary, George Little, issued a statement that sought to qualify the conclusion from the Defense Intelligence Agency, 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,” Mr. Little said.
A spokesman for the South Korean Defense Ministry, Kim Min-seok, said early Friday that despite various assessments. “we have doubt that North Korea has reached the stage of miniaturization.”
Nonetheless, outside experts said that the report’s conclusions could explain why Mr. Hagel has announced in recent weeks that the Pentagon was bolstering long-range antimissile defenses in Alaska and California, intended to protect the West Coast, and rushing another antimissile system, originally not set for deployment until 2015, to Guam.
Also Thursday, Mr. 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.
Mr. Clapper told a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee that in his experience, two other confrontations with the North — the seizure of the Navy spy ship Pueblo in 1968 and the death of two military officers in a tree-cutting episode in the demilitarized zone in 1976 — stoked much greater tensions between the two countries. The statement by the South Korean official, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae, was televised nationally, and it represented a considerable softening in tone by President Park Geun-hye’s government.
Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, was scheduled to arrive in Seoul on Friday and to travel to China and Japan after that. He has two principal goals on the last leg of a six-nation trip: to encourage China to use its influence to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program while reassuring South Korea and Japan that the United States remains committed to their defense.
The report issued by the Defense Intelligence Agency last month was titled “Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program.” Its executive summary reads: “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.”
A spokesman for Mr. Lamborn, Catherine Mortensen, said the material he quoted during the hearing was unclassified. Pentagon officials said later that while the report remained classified, the one-paragraph finding had been declassified but not released. Republicans in Congress have led efforts to increase money for missile defense, and Mr. Lamborn has been critical of the Obama administration for failing to finance it adequately.
North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests, including one this year, and shot a ballistic missile as far as the Philippines in December. American and South Korean intelligence agencies believe that another test — perhaps of a midrange missile called the Musudan that can reach Japan, South Korea and almost as far as Guam — may be conducted in the coming days, to celebrate the birth of Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder. At the Pentagon, there is particular concern about another missile, yet untested, called the KN-08, which may have significantly longer range.
“North Korea has already demonstrated capabilities that threaten the United States and the security environment in East Asia,” Mr. Clapper told the House Intelligence Committee.
He added that “we believe Pyongyang has already taken initial steps” toward fielding what he called a “road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile.” He appeared to be referring to the KN-08, provided to North Korea by a Russian company and based on the design of a Russian submarine-launched nuclear missile.
Mr. Clapper referred to “extremely belligerent, aggressive public rhetoric towards the United States and South Korea” by the North’s young president, Kim Jong-un. And he made it clear that getting inside Mr. Kim’s head, and understanding his goals, had been particularly frustrating.
He suggested that while Mr. Kim’s grandfather and father had clear motives — to periodically threaten the world with nuclear crises, then wait to get paid in cash, food or equipment to lower the rhetoric — the younger Mr. Kim apparently intended to demonstrate both to North Koreans and to the international community that North Korea deserves respect as a nuclear power.
“His primary objective is to consolidate, affirm his power,” Mr. Clapper told the House committee, adding that “the belligerent rhetoric of late, I think, is designed for both an internal and an external audience.”
Asked if the North Korean leader had an “endgame,” Mr. Clapper said, “I don’t think, really, he has much of an endgame other than to somehow elicit recognition from the world and specifically, most importantly, the United States, of North Korea as a rival on an international scene, as a nuclear power, and that that entitles him to negotiation and to accommodation, and presumably for aid.”
Other officials have said, in background interviews, that Mr. Kim is trying to get North Korea into the same position as Pakistan: an acknowledged nuclear power that the West has given up hopes of disarming.
Mr. Clapper appeared with the heads of several other intelligence agencies, including Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn of the Defense Intelligence Agency; the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III; and the C.I.A. director, John O. Brennan, to present their annual assessment of the threats facing the nation. The same officials briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee last month.
Even as they sought to explain the North Korean leader’s recent bellicose threats, which have prompted American and South Korean troops to increase alert levels, Mr. Clapper and other top intelligence officials acknowledged that United States spy agencies do not know much about Mr. Kim.
“Kim Jong-un has not been in power all that long, so we don’t have an extended track record for him like we did with his father and grandfather,” Mr. Brennan said. “That’s why we are watching this very closely and to see whether or not what he is doing is consistent with past patterns of North Korean behavior.”
Mr. Clapper added that with such little information on Mr. Kim, “there’s no telling how he’s going to behave.”
“He impresses me as impetuous, not as inhibited as his father became about taking aggressive action,” he added. “The pattern with his father was to be provocative and then to sort of back off. We haven’t seen that yet with Kim Jong-un.”
As for what might change the North’s posture, Mr. Clapper pointed to China’s new leadership. “I think probably if anyone has real leverage over the North Koreans, it is China,” he said.