North Korea can arm missiles, officer reports
The Pentagon's top military intelligence officer said yesterday that North Korea has the ability to arm a missile with a nuclear device...
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon's top military intelligence officer said yesterday that North Korea has the ability to arm a missile with a nuclear device, stunning senators he was addressing and prompting attempts by other defense and intelligence officials later to play down the impact.
The statement by Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby before the Senate Armed Services Committee marked the first time that a U.S. official had publicly attributed such a capability to North Korea.
Although U.S. intelligence authorities have said for years that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons and could likely reach the United States with its long-range rockets, they had stopped short of asserting that North Korea had mastered the difficult task of miniaturizing a nuclear device to fit atop a ballistic missile.
Jacoby, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said U.S. intelligence agencies believe North Korea has developed multistage intercontinental missiles with nuclear warheads capable of hitting the United States. A two-stage missile is believed capable of striking "Alaska and Hawaii, and I believe a portion of the Northwest," he said.
A three-stage missile "would be able to reach most of the continental United States," Jacoby said, adding that the three-stage missile remains a "theoretical capability in the sense that those missiles have not been tested."
Later in the day, the Defense Intelligence Agency issued a statement seeking to portray the admiral's assessment as nothing new and still largely theoretical. It cited his testimony last month before the same committee, where he said North Korea is developing a missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead to parts of the U.S.
But those comments dealt with the ability of the North Korean missile, known as the Taepo-Dong 2, to go the distance with a nuclear warhead — not whether North Korea could actually mount such warheads on its missiles.
Other DIA and CIA officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the consensus view is that North Korea is still some years away from being able to put nuclear warheads on long-range missiles.
But several Senate staff members who witnessed the testimony and have access to U.S. intelligence on North Korea indicated that Jacoby's comments did in fact reflect some recent information they had seen.
"He may not have meant to say it in a public forum," one staff member speculated.
North Korea first tested its Taepo-Dong 2, a two-stage intercontinental ballistic missile, in 1998 and more recently conducted tests of missile engines. The communist country is believed to have built a few nuclear warheads.
President Bush, speaking at a news conference last night about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, said: "There is concern about his capacity to deliver a nuclear weapon. We don't know if he can or not, but I think it's best, when you're dealing with a tyrant like Kim Jong Il, to assume he can."
Jacoby's earlier remarks were made in response to questions from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. Senate aides said the questions had been carefully crafted in consultation with the committee staff.
"Admiral, let me ask you, do you assess that North Korea has the ability to arm a missile with a nuclear device?" Clinton said.
"The assessment is that they have the capability to do that, yes, ma'am," Jacoby replied.
Clinton said Jacoby's testimony "was troubling beyond words" and suggested that it is time for the United States to negotiate directly with North Korea.
The administration's diplomatic drive in "six-party" talks with Japan, China, South Korea and Russia to halt the North Korean weapons programs has been stalled since June.
North Korea has refused to attend the talks since June and, according to U.S. officials, appears to have built up its stockpile of nuclear material.
Jacoby said he thought it was unlikely North Korea would ever agree to end its nuclear-weapons program in diplomatic negotiations.
"Our assessment is that the nuclear capability and ambiguities that they have pursued for so many years was a major bargaining-chip leverage," Jacoby said.
U.S. estimates of North Korean efforts to develop nuclear weapons and build long-range missiles have critical importance for the Bush administration's vigorous effort to develop anti-missile systems.
The administration has refused to meet one-on-one with North Korea, except on the sidelines of the six-party talks, arguing that such a bilateral approach has proven ineffective in the past.
U.S. officials also acknowledge large gaps in what they know of North Korea's nuclear-development effort. Since estimating a decade ago that North Korea had obtained "one or two" nuclear devices, the U.S. government has not provided an official update, although privately analysts have raised their estimates to an average of about nine nuclear weapons.
Jacoby said yesterday he expected to have a new assessment to present to the Senate committee in "approximately two weeks."
Clinton's remarks reported by Gannett News Service and the status of negotiations by The Associated Press.
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