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Pentagon: No New North Korean Nuclear Weapon Capability

The U.S. Defense Department says a statement Thursday by its intelligence chief was not a new assessment indicating an increased nuclear weapons capability by North Korea. The spokesman was attempting to clarify comments made Thursday by the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

It was this exchange Thursday between Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice-admiral Lowell Jacoby that made headlines.

Vice-Admiral Lowell Jacoby
CLINTON: "Admiral, let me ask you, do you assess that North Korea has the ability to arm a missile with a nuclear device?”
JACBOY: "The assessment is that they have the capability to do that, yes ma'am.”
CLINTON: "And do you assess that North Korea has the ability to deploy a two-stage inter-continental missile, a nuclear missile, that could successfully hit U.S. territory?”
JACOBY: "Yes. The assessment on a two-stage missile would give, be able to reach portions of U.S. territory, and the projection on a three-stage missile would be that it would be able to reach most of the continental United States. That still is a theoretical capability in the sense that those missiles have not been tested.”
CLINTON: "With all due respect, it is troubling beyond words that we have testimony like that at this time."

But on Friday, the Pentagon's chief spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita called an unexpected news briefing and offered this explanation of what Admiral Jacoby had said.

"He was not making a new assessment,” said Mr. Di Rita. “There is no new assessment of North Korea's capability in this regard. And in fact, he was speaking about a theoretical capability to combine missile types and a warhead, such that you could have a theoretical ability to reach the United States, as he described."

Mr. Di Rita says Admiral Jacoby had said something similar a month earlier, and was only rephrasing his assessment, not offering new information. The key apparently new point was when Admiral Jacoby said North Korea is believed to have the ability to put a nuclear warhead on one of its inter-continental missiles. But Mr. Di Rita contradicted the admiral on that point.

"I don't believe we know that and I don't believe that that's part of the assessment," said Mr. Di Rita.

Still, Mr. Di Rita said North Korea's military capability is a threat to the international community, and must be dealt with. He said for now, the United States believes the most important thing is for North Korea to agree to return to talks that also include China, Russia, South Korea and Japan. He said "further steps" could be taken in the future, but he would not say what or when.

Earlier Friday in Seoul, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said the North Korea nuclear situation "grows with a sense of urgency." Mr. Di Rita would not use that phrasing.

But at a news conference on Thursday President Bush indicated he is concerned about North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons capability, even though it has not been tested or confirmed.

"Look, Kim Jong-il is a dangerous person,” said Mr. Bush. “He's a man who starves his people. He's got huge concentration camps. And 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."

North Korea claims it does have a nuclear weapons capability, and in an interview last week, North Korea's Ambassador to the United Nations, Han Song Ryol, said it was developed to counter what he called hostility from the United States. He said the nuclear issue can be solved only if the United States changes its policy.

"If the United States gives up the hostile policy and respects our sovereignty and has the policy to coexist with the DPRK, we are in a position to solve the nuclear issue through dialogue," he said.

North Korea wants bilateral talks with the United States. The United States says that approach failed in the past, and the nuclear issue must be solved in conjunction with the other countries in the six-party talks. But some critics, like Senator Clinton, believe that approach is not working and should be changed in order to use all possible means to avoid moving to the unspecified "further steps" that Mr. Di Rita mentioned. President Bush said on Thursday he will work with the other countries in the process to determine when the approach must be changed.