U.S. Intelligence Sends Mixed Messages on North Korea’s Nuclear, Missile Capabilities

By Patrick Goodenough | April 12, 2013 | 4:38 AM EDT

From left, FBI Director Robert Mueller, National Intelligence Director James Clapper; CIA Director John Brennan, and Department of Defense's Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 11, 2013, before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

(CNSNews.com) – A disclosure on Capitol Hill that the Defense Intelligence Agency believes North Korea has developed the know-how to mount nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles made international headlines Thursday, before Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called it into question.

Clapper said in a statement that a passage read out during a House Armed Services Committee by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) “is not an intelligence community assessment.”

“Moreover, North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile,” he said.

During the hearing earlier, Lamborn read out a sentence from what he said was an unclassified – but not yet made public – portion of a classified DIA report prepared in March: “DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles; however the reliability will be low.”

Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, who was testifying with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on the administration’s FY2014 Defense budget request, declined to say whether he agreed with that assessment.

“I can’t touch that one, because I’m not sure now – it hasn’t been released, some of it’s classified, some of it’s unclassified. Let me take that one for the record.”

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) questions Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey on the North Korean threat during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday. (Image: Lamborn/YouTube)

Lamborn then read it out again, looking expectantly at the general.

Dempsey said, “And your question is, do I agree with the DIA’s assessment? Well I haven’t seen it, and you said it’s not publicly released, so I choose not to comment on it.”

Lamborn also posed a question to Hagel, recalling that during a joint Pentagon press briefing with Hagel on March 15, Joint Chiefs of Staff vice-chairman Adm. James A. Winnefeld had mentioned a North Korean missile known as the KN-08, which was first seen at a military parade in Pyongyang last April.

Asked by a reporter if he knew “whether it has the range to reach the United States,” Winnefeld replied, “We would probably want to avoid the intelligent aspects of that.”

Then he continued, “But we believe the KN-08 probably does have the range to reach the United States …”

(Winnefeld also added, “… and the – our assessment of – of where it exists in its lifetime is something that would remain classified,” although Lamborn did not quote that part of the reply.)

Lamborn asked Hagel whether he agreed with Winnefeld’s comment.

“I’m not sure if he was referring to Hawaii, which is part of the United States, as we know,” Hagel said. “So I don’t know, I’d have – if that was what he was referring to. Certainly, as I said, there are things that we don’t know. So, I’ll ask him.”

Dempsey then stepped in, recalling that when the North Koreans last December test-fired the Taepodong-2 missile, sending a satellite into orbit, they achieved a third-stage capability – “and it’s that third stage that was kind of the breakthrough for the North Koreans.”

“I think what Adm. Winnefeld was saying is that, now that now that they have that third stage technology apparently under control, it could very well migrate to the KN-08,” Dempsey told the committee.

‘Demonstrated capabilities that threaten the United States’

Also on Thursday, Clapper addressed the House Select Committee on Intelligence on the intelligence community’s annual report on threats facing the United States. In his remarks, he stated, “North Korea has already demonstrated capabilities that threaten the United States and the security environment in East Asia.”

“It announced in February that it conducted its third nuclear test, vowed to restart its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and last year about this time displayed what appears to be a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile,” he said, referring to the KN-08.

“We believe Pyongyang has already taken initial steps for – towards fielding this system, although it remains untested,” Clapper told the panel.

Pentagon spokesman George Little also issued a statement Thursday in response to the developments on Capitol Hill.

“In today’s House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Department of Defense budget, a member of the committee read an unclassified passage in a classified report on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities,” he 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 the passage,” Little said.

“The United States continues to closely monitor the North Korean nuclear program and calls upon North Korea to honor its international obligations.”

In South Korea, the semi-official news agency Yonhap headlined its story on the reported DIA assessment, “N. Korea knows how to miniaturize nuclear bombs, U.S. military agency says.”

South Korean defense ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok also called the assessment into doubt.

“North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests, but it is still doubtful that North Korea has made a small, light warhead that can be mounted on a missile,” he told a briefing.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow