WASHINGTON — A new assessment of North Korea’s nuclear capability conducted by the Pentagon’s intelligence arm has concluded for the first time, with “moderate confidence,” that the country 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.
It is unclear whether other American intelligence agencies agree with the assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency, which has primary responsibility for monitoring the missile capabilities of adversary nations. In the case of Iraq, a decade ago, the agency was among those that argued most vociferously that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons.
Outside experts said that the report’s conclusions helped explain why the administration announced last month that it was bolstering long-range antimissile defenses in Alaska and California, designed to protect the West Coast, and was rushing another antimissile system, originally not intended for deployment until 2015, to Guam.
The existence of the assessment was disclosed Thursday by Representative Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Republican, 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. General Dempsey declined to comment because of classification issues. The actual wording in the report was obtained by The New York Times.
The congressman’s spokeswoman, Catherine Mortensen, said the material he quoted during the hearing was unclassified. Pentagon officials said later that, while the report remained classified, the one-paragraph finding had been declassified but had not previously been released.
The report issued by the Defense Intelligence Agency last month was titled “Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program." Its executive summary reads: “D.I.A. assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles; however the reliability will be low.”