A US intelligence report says North Korea has advanced its nuclear know-how to the point that it could arm a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead.
President Barack Obama urged calm, calling on Pyongyang to end its sabre-rattling while warning that he would “take all necessary steps” to protect American citizens.
The new American intelligence analysis, disclosed at a hearing in Congress, says the Pentagon’s intelligence wing has “moderate confidence” that North Korea has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles but that the weapon was unreliable.
Rep Doug Lamborn read aloud what he said was an unclassified paragraph from a secret Defence Intelligence Agency report supplied to some members of Congress.
The reading seemed to take General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by surprise. He said he had not seen the report and declined to answer questions about it.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said: “While I cannot speak to all the details of a report that is classified in its entirety, it would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced” in Mr Lamborn’s remarks.
“The United States continues to closely monitor the North Korean nuclear programme and calls upon North Korea to honour its international obligations,” Mr Little added.
The DIA conclusion was confirmed by a senior congressional aide who said the report was produced in March.
Since the beginning of March, the US Navy has moved two missile defence ships closer to the coast of the Korean peninsula, in part to protect against a potential missile launch aimed at Guam, a US territory in the Pacific.
The Pentagon also has announced it will place a more advanced land-based missile defence on Guam, and defence secretary Chuck Hagel said he approved 14 additional missile interceptors in Alaska to bolster a portion of the missile defence network designed to protect all US territory.
Yesterday the Pentagon said it had moved a sea-based X-band radar – designed to track warheads in flight – into position in the Pacific.
Notably absent from that unclassified segment of the report was any reference to what the DIA believes is the range of a missile North Korea could arm with a nuclear warhead.
Much of its missile arsenal is capable of reaching South Korea and Japan, but Kim Jong Un has threatened to attack the United States as well.
At the House Armed Services Committee hearing in which he revealed the DIA assessment, Mr Lamborn asked Gen Dempsey, whether he agreed with it. Gen Dempsey said he had not seen the report.
“You said it’s not publicly released, so I choose not to comment on it,” he said.
But David Wright, a nuclear weapons expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the DIA assessment probably did not change the views of those who closely followed developments in North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
“People are starting to believe North Korea very likely has the capability to build a nuclear weapon small enough to put on some of their shorter-range missiles,” he said.
“Once you start talking about warheads small enough and technically capable to be on a long-range missile, I think it’s much more an open question.”
The DIA assessment is not out of line with comments Gen Dempsey made on Wednesday when he was asked at a Pentagon news conference whether North Korea was capable of pairing a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile that could reach Japan or beyond.
In response, Gen Dempsey said the extent of North Korean progress on designing a nuclear weapon small enough to operate as a missile warhead was a classified matter, but did not rule out that the North had achieved the capability revealed in the DIA report.
At the same hearing where Mr Lamborn revealed the DIA conclusion, Mr Hagel was asked a different version of the same question: does North Korea have the capability to strike US territory with a nuclear weapon? Mr Hagel said the answer was no.
“Now does that mean that they won’t have it or they can’t have it or they’re not working on it?” he added. “No. That’s why this is a very dangerous situation.”
“Now is the time for North Korea to end the belligerent approach they have taken and to try to lower temperatures,” Mr Obama said in his first public comments since Pyongyang threatened the United States and its allies in East Asia with nuclear attack.
Speaking from the Oval Office, said he preferred to see the tensions on the peninsula resolved through diplomatic means, but added that “the United States will take all necessary steps to protect its people”.
The North delivered a fresh round of war rhetoric yesterday, with claims it had “powerful striking means” on standby, the latest in a torrent of warlike threats seen by outsiders as an effort to scare and pressure South Korea and the US into changing their North Korea policies.
At a separate hearing yesterday, US officials offered their assessment of the North Korean leader, a grandson of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung.
Director of national intelligence James Clapper told the House Intelligence Committee that he thinks Kim Jong Un, who took control after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in 2011, is trying to show the US, the world and his own people that he is “firmly in control in North Korea”, while attempting to manoeuvre the international community into concessions in future negotiations.
“I don’t think ... he has much of an endgame other than to somehow elicit recognition” and to turn the nuclear threat into “negotiation and to accommodation and presumably for aid,” Mr Clapper said.
Clapper said that the intelligence community believes the North would use nuclear weapons only to preserve the Kim regime but that analysts do not know how the regime defines that.