Analysts and officials are cautioning against drawing too many conclusions from the partial disclosure of a U.S. intelligence report that suggests North Korea has succeeded in being able to place a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.
The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Pentagon's spy wing, has "moderate confidence" that North Korea has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by a ballistic missile, according to an unclassified portion of the report disclosed Thursday.
The partial report, unexpectedly revealed by U.S. Congressman Doug Lamborn during a routine budget hearing in Washington, was cautious, noting that U.S. defense officials still view the North Korean weapons technology as unreliable.
But the report is still significant because it marks the first time U.S. officials have publicly suggested that North Korea has succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear weapon, a development that would represent an important new threat in Pyongyang's arsenal.
U.S. defense and intelligence officials immediately downplayed the leaked contents of the report, making clear that Washington still does not consider North Korea a nuclear weapons state.
“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," said Pentagon spokesperson George Little in a statement.
The U.S. director of national intelligence, James Clapper, cautioned the DIA assessment does not reflect the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community. "North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear-armed missile," he said.
North Korea has so far conducted three nuclear tests. The latest, in February, used what Pyongyang called a "smaller and lighter" atomic bomb. In December, it also succeeded in using a long-range rocket to place a satellite into orbit.
Both tests were seen as key steps toward North Korea's stated goal of being able to strike the U.S. mainland with a nuclear weapon. But many analysts say North Korea needs years of additional research, development, and tests before this goal can be realized.
Not only does North Korea need to make a nuclear device small enough to be placed on a missile, analysts say it also must develop reliable long-range missiles and a guidance system able to bring the missile back to earth once it has reached orbit.
Not much known
The DIA assessment highlights how much U.S. intelligence officials do not know about the advancements of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, says Cedric Leighton, a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer.
"I think what the report indicates is that the intelligence community is continuing its assessment of North Korean capabilities," says Leighton, who now runs his own intelligence management consultancy.
"They are not conclusive in their statements," he says. "When you talk about 'moderate confidence' and things of that nature, those are careful terms and are deliberately chosen," he says.
Leighton also warns against focusing on just one portion of a much larger, classified report. He says the entire analysis likely portrayed a much more complex picture of the situation.
But Bruce Bennett of the RAND Corporation believes the North's nuclear program is likely more advanced than many Western intelligence agencies assume.
"Certainly North Korea hasn't tested putting a nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile," says Bennett. "But for some time there have been reports in Korea that North Korea has already had or will shortly have that kind of capability."
Bennett says there is reason for heightened concern, especially since North Korea has threatened to conduct yet another weapons test with the mid-range missiles that intelligence agencies say have been moved to its east coast.
Many expect the test to take place during the run-up to Monday's birthday celebration of North Korea's late founding leader, Kim Il Sung.
VOA's Victor Beattie contributed to this report