Questions over North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have again skyrocketed into the headlines—not because of another threat by Pyongyang but instead by a U.S. intelligence assessment.
The existence of a new classified Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report was disclosed during a congressional hearing by Representative Doug Lamborn (R–CO). According to Lamborn, “DIA assesses with moderate confidence [North Korea] has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles. However, the reliability will be low.” It is unknown if the report is based on newly acquired information or is a reassessment of existing intelligence.
The single leaked sentence actually appears consistent with previous DIA assessments. In March 2011, DIA director Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess testified that North Korea “may now have several plutonium-based nuclear warheads that it can deliver by ballistic missiles and aircraft as well as unconventional means.”
It is not known if the new DIA report reflects the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community. Testimony by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in 2011 and 2013 was less definitive in assessing North Korea’s ability to weaponize, miniaturize, and integrate nuclear weapons onto missiles.
In recent months, Pyongyang has gone far beyond DIA’s assessment by repeatedly asserting that it has miniaturized and diversified (suggesting both plutonium- and uranium-based weapons) warheads that can already strike the United States. In December 2012, North Korea successfully placed a satellite into orbit using a long-range Taepo Dong missile. That is the same technology needed to put a warhead anywhere on earth.
Rather than parsing the wording of a single sentence from a U.S. intelligence report, however, Washington should focus on the very real threat that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles pose to the U.S. The threat has long been known. In 2001, the U.S. intelligence community warned that “before 2015” the U.S. would face a North Korean ICBM threat.
Bruce Bennett, a defense analyst at Rand Corporation, told reporters, “We don’t know if North Korea can mount nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles, but there is a reasonable chance they can on at least their shorter-range missiles.”
North Korea became increasingly belligerent and threatening since its successful long-range missile and nuclear tests of December 2012 and February 2013. The Obama Administration belatedly acknowledged the North Korea missile threat by reversing a previous policy decision and adopting the Bush Administration plan to increase the number of Ground-Based Midcourse Defense interceptors to 44.
Within days, Pyongyang is expected to launch several Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The launch would be the first flight test of another North Korean missile as well as the first launch of a long-range missile from a mobile launcher. The Musudan is estimated to be able to reach U.S. bases in Okinawa and Guam.
The launch would again show North Korea’s defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions and the necessity of a comprehensive, integrated missile defense system to protect the U.S. and its allies.