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Does North Korea have nuclear missiles or not?
The Pentagon says Pyongyang can probably make warheads small enough to put on a missile. Other intelligence agencies aren't so sure
 
Kim Jong-Un visits a military unit on an island southwest of Pyongyang in August 2012.
Kim Jong-Un visits a military unit on an island southwest of Pyongyang in August 2012. REUTERS/KCNA

The Defense Intelligence Agency says, in an assessment disclosed during a congressional hearing on Thursday, that it has concluded with "moderate confidence" that North Korea can build a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile. The agency — which is the Pentagon's intelligence arm— also says, however, that if Pyongyang can indeed make such a weapon, it would be unreliable.

Still, figuring out how to miniaturize a nuclear warhead would mark a major milestone, as it would give the regime an ability to make good on its threat to nuke faraway targets, including American bases in the Pacific.

But before you assume the worst, know this: Other Obama administration security experts are talking down the DIA's assessment. "North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile," said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006, but launching an actual nuclear missile is another matter. Figuring out how to shrink down the components for a nuclear explosion so they'll fit inside a warhead on the tip of a missile isn't exactly a walk in the park, says Eli Lake at The Daily Beast. And because North Korea is so closed off, it's hard for intelligence officials to be sure about what the country's nuclear scientists can and can't do — spy satellites can only tell us so much. It's scary, though, that some very, very well-informed people think North Korea is at the point where Kim Jong-Un could pull it off.

[Bruce Bennett, an expert on North Korea's military at the RAND Corporation,] says he doesn't know whether North Korea could place a nuclear warhead on a missile, but that South Korean defense experts think it's possible. "Many of my South Korean colleagues argue they can put a warhead on a missile and may have done so already," Bennett says. "I don't know for sure, but my guessing based on what my South Korean colleagues are telling me is that they can." [Daily Beast]

Skeptics say there's no reason to believe North Korea has reached this dangerous milestone... yet. The DIA's qualified assessment certainly "doesn't reflect the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community," say Tony Capaccio and David Lerman at Bloomberg Businessweek. Different American intelligence agencies have come to different conclusions. That's not uncommon — nor is the fact that it's the Pentagon's spymasters who are "offering the most alarming view." Some of those in the intelligence community throwing cold water on the DIA assessment might simply want to avoid a repeat of the bungled intelligence that was used to justify invading Iraq. Still, there is consensus on one thing: If North Korea can miniaturize nukes, it can't aim them well at all.

As a result, North Korea would risk not only massive and possibly nuclear retaliation if it launched a nuclear-armed missile, but also the danger that an untested weapon might explode on the launchpad or in mid-air. [Bloomberg Businessweek]

Not everyone is so sanguine. The bit in DIA's assessment about the low reliability of a nuclear-armed North Korean missile is hardly soothing, says Allahpundit at Hot Air. Maybe it means "their missiles are so rickety that they'd fail in the air." That has happened before. Maybe, though, it means "they could hit something on the ground but probably not the specific target they're aiming at." Yikes. "Imagine Kim deciding he's going to flex the ultimate muscle by nuking some uninhabited atoll and instead he hits Japan or Guam. Nuclear war, full stop."

 
Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

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