WASHINGTON — A new assessment by the Pentagon’s intelligence arm has concluded for the first time, with “moderate confidence,” 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 Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., 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. Dempsey declined to comment on the assessment because of classification issues.
Thursday evening, however, the Pentagon press secretary, George Little, issued a statement that sought to qualify the conclusion of 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,” 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 another sign of the administration’s deep concern over the release of the assessment, late Thursday the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., said that the Defense Intelligence Agency report did not represent a consensus of the nation’s intelligence community.