On the brink of an expected North Korean missile test, U.S. officials focused on the limits of Pyongyang’s nuclear firepower Friday, trying to shift attention from the disclosure that the North Koreans might be able to launch a nuclear strike.
They insisted that while the unpredictable government might have rudimentary nuclear capabilities, it has not proved it has a weapon that could reach the United States.
A senior defense official said the U.S. sees a “strong likelihood” that North Korea will launch a test missile in coming days in defiance of international calls for restraint. The effort is expected to test the North’s ballistic missile technologies, not a nuclear weapon, said the official, who was granted anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
Unless the missile unexpectedly heads for a U.S. or allied target, the Pentagon does not plan to try to shoot it down, several officials said. As a precaution, the U.S. has arrayed in the Pacific a number of missile defense Navy ships, tracking radars and other elements of its worldwide network for shooting down hostile missiles.
The tensions playing out on the Korean peninsula are the latest in a long-running drama that dates to the 1950-53 Korean War, fed by the North’s conviction that Washington is intent on destroying the government in Pyongyang and Washington’s worry that the North could, out of desperation, reignite the war by invading the South.
The mood in the North Korean capital, meanwhile, was hardly so tense. Many people were in the streets preparing for the birthday April 15 of national founder Kim Il Sung — the biggest holiday of the year. Even so, this year’s big flower show in Kim’s honor features an exhibition of orchids built around mock-ups of red-tipped missiles, slogans hailing the military and reminders of perceived threats to the nation.
The plain fact is that no one can be sure how far North Korea has progressed in its pursuit of becoming a full-fledged nuclear power, aside perhaps from a few people close to its new leader, Kim Jong Un.
More is known about North Korea’s conventional military firepower, and it is being heavily monitored for signs of trouble. The North has long had thousands of artillery guns positioned close enough to the border to hit Seoul with a murderous barrage on short notice. The U.S. has about 28,500 troops in the South.
Concern about the North’s threatening rhetoric jumped a notch Thursday with the disclosure on Capitol Hill that the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency believes with “moderate confidence” that the North could deliver a nuclear weapon by ballistic missile. The DIA assessment did not mention the potential range of such a strike, but it led to a push by administration officials to minimize the significance of the jarring disclosure.
Secretary of State John Kerry said in Seoul on Friday “it’s inaccurate to suggest” that the North had fully tested and demonstrated its ability to deliver a nuclear weapon by ballistic missile, a message also delivered by the Pentagon and by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence and a former head of the DIA.
Indeed, the attention-getting DIA report made no such suggestion; it simply offered what amounts to an educated guess that the North has some level of nuclear weapons capability. It has been working on that for at least 20 years, and private analysts who closely track North Korean developments say it’s fairly clear that the North has made progress.
The DIA disclosure spawned a partisan split in Washington over its significance and meaning. A Republican House member with access to classified intelligence said the analysis was in line with a view generally held by other U.S. intelligence agencies, whereas a senior Obama administration official said the central DIA assertion is not shared by many government analysts. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence.
Thomas Fingar, a former deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, said the DIA report reflects the fact that the military plans against worse cases, “so you’re prepared for anything less than that.”
The website of the director of national intelligence defines “high confidence” as indicating that “judgments are based on high-quality information, and/or that the nature of the issue makes it possible to render a solid judgment.” Moderate confidence means “the information is credibly sourced and plausible but not of sufficient quality or corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence.” Low confidence means the information’s “credibility and/or plausibility is questionable, or that the information is too fragmented or poorly corroborated ... or that we have significant concerns or problems with the sources.”
Kerry, who was headed to Beijing to seek Chinese help in persuading North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile testing, told reporters in Seoul that the North’s progress on nuclear weapons, as described in the DIA report, pushed the country “closer to a line that is more dangerous.” Kerry also was due to visit Japan.
“If Kim Jong Un decides to launch a missile, whether it’s across the Sea of Japan or some other direction, he will be choosing willfully to ignore the entire international community,” Kerry said.