WASHINGTON – A U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that North Korea has the capability to develop nuclear warheads small enough to fit on a ballistic missile, a congressman disclosed Thursday.
Although U.S. experts believe North Korea cannot hit the U.S. mainland with its missiles, a significant improvement in North Korea’s weapons technology would be deeply disconcerting for U.S. policymakers. It would also help explain the United States’ measures – including an emphasis on its ability to respond with nuclear weapons – after weeks of warlike rhetoric from North Korea.
Regional intelligence officials and analysts say North Korea is poised to launch as many as five missiles from its east coast, but that the planned launches did not appear to be in preparation for war. They said the launches were likely to only be part of a military exercise and would not pose a threat to the U.S. or its allies, Japan and South Korea.
Analysts said the exercise would probably be part of festivities to mark the birthday Monday of the country’s late founder, Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current leader.
At a House Armed Services Committee hearing focused on the budget, Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., read from what he said was an unclassified portion of a classified Defense Intelligence Agency study. “DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles. However, the reliability will be low,” it says.
Lamborn said the DIA study was completed last month, but the conclusion had not been made public.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said he could not address the details of a classified report. However, “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.”
The DIA tends to be more aggressive in its intelligence assessments than the CIA, according to Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst on North Korea. He said the DIA has hinted before that North Korea could mount warheads on its missiles. It’s unclear whether other U.S. intelligence agencies share the assessment.
The Pentagon said last month that it planned to augment missile defense systems in Alaska in response to the threat. The Defense Department also said it would deploy another antimissile system to Guam, which is within range of North Korean missiles.
The Pentagon also sent two long-range B-2 bombers from their base in Missouri last month on a round-trip flight to South Korea as part of a military exercise.
North Korea claimed after its most recent nuclear test in February that its objective was to develop a smaller and lighter warhead with “diverse materials.”
Analysts said the statement indicated North Korea was stepping up its development of a miniaturized warhead that could fit atop one of its long-range missiles, and that the device used enriched uranium as a trigger, rather than the plutonium previously used.
North Korea’s official news agency said the nuclear test was successful. Seismic monitoring systems measured a resulting earthquake of magnitude 5.1, slightly higher than in previous tests. But U.S. officials said yield estimates were uncertain.
At a Pentagon news conference last month to announce expansion of U.S. missile defense systems, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel did not answer directly when asked when North Korea would have intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. He said the U.S. goal was to stay ahead of the development of North Korea’s weapons.
David Albright, a nuclear weapons expert with the Institute for Science and International Security, said in February that he believed North Korea has had the capability to mount a plutonium-based warhead on its shorter-range Rodong missiles “for some time,” and was making progress on a warhead for an intercontinental ballistic missile.
He said the U.S. intelligence community has not “been of one opinion” on North Korea’s ability to produce miniaturized warheads. “Key members” of the intelligence community have credited North Korea with the ability to produce smaller warheads “for many years,” he said, but that conclusion was based on assessment and “not concrete evidence.”
At another congressional hearing Thursday, James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, sought to downplay the recent tension with North Korea. He said tension has been higher in his career, but he underscored the uncertainty of intelligence about North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un.
“We don’t have good detail on the inner sanctum,” he said. “There’s no telling how he’s going to behave. He impresses me as impetuous, (and) not as inhibited as his father became about taking aggressive action.”
Xu Guangyu, a senior military analyst in Beijing, said there was no threat from the missiles expected to be launched in coming days. “The grandson is using the missiles to salute his grandfather and celebrate his power,” Xu said.
Nevertheless, Japan and South Korea said they would use Patriot antimissile systems to shoot down any North Korean projectiles that threaten their territory.
Among the missiles that might be launched is a new, as-yet-untested Musudan with an estimated range of up to 2,400 miles, enough to reach the Pacific island of Guam.
South Korean intelligence sources were quoted Thursday as saying satellites had detected two of the missiles and launchers being moved in and out of a shed near the coastal city of Wonsan.
“There are signs the North could fire off Musudan missiles any time soon,” an unidentified intelligence source in Seoul told the state-run Yonhap news agency.
The South Korean officials also predicted launches of short-range Scud missiles and medium-range Rodong missiles.