N. Korea said to have nuclear capability

U.S. intelligence official is first to say publicly that it can arm its missiles

April 29, 2005|By Greg Miller and Mark Mazzetti | Greg Miller and Mark Mazzetti,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency testified yesterday that North Korea now has the ability to arm a missile with a nuclear device, marking the first time a U.S. intelligence official has publicly said that Pyongyang had crossed that critical technological threshold.

But other U.S. intelligence officials said they could not confirm Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby's remarks, and the Defense Intelligence Agency subsequently issued a statement saying that Jacoby was merely "reiterating" previous testimony.

The contradictory information left it unclear whether the United States has obtained new intelligence suggesting a significant advance in North Korea's nuclear weapons efforts.

Jacoby's remarks came in response to questions from Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. At one point, she said: "Admiral, ... do you assess that North Korea has the ability to arm a missile with a nuclear device?"

Jacoby replied: "The assessment is that they have the capability to do that."

U.S. spy agencies have long suspected that North Korea was working to miniaturize a nuclear device so that it could function as a payload on one of its missile systems - which may be capable of reaching the United States' West Coast. But congressional officials and North Korea experts said no U.S. official has ever said that North Korea had succeeded in that task.

Jacoby did not elaborate or provide a basis for his statement, which caught lawmakers off-guard.

In its statement, the Defense Intelligence Agency said Jacoby broke no new ground during his testimony and that his comments echoed those made during a March appearance before the committee.

Yet Jacoby's statement in March focused on North Korea's missile development, and did not specifically raise the point he made yesterday - that Pyongyang had developed the technology to marry its missiles with nuclear bombs to create an atomic weapon capable of hitting the United States.

A Defense Intelligence Agency spokesman would not address the seeming difference between the two statements by Jacoby.

Some congressional staff members said they have been closely tracking the progress of North Korea's weapons program, yet they were caught off guard by Jacoby's apparent candor.

"We did not anticipate the answer we got. But the answer did not surprise us," said a senior congressional staffer.

North Korea, a communist country that is largely closed to the outside world, is one of the most challenging targets for U.S. intelligence agencies. Details about its nuclear program are particularly elusive because Pyongyang is believed to have taken extensive precautions to hide its efforts from satellites and other surveillance by locating key facilities underground.

A presidential commission on U.S. espionage recently concluded that intelligence on North Korea was particularly weak, according to officials with access to a chapter on North Korea that was not made public.

Democrats seized on Jacoby's remarks to criticize the Bush administration's policy toward North Korea.

After yesterday's hearing, Clinton and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging the administration "to engage in bilateral diplomatic efforts with North Korea to address this serious threat."

The White House has refused to engage in bilateral talks with Pyongyang, instead supporting six-party talks involving China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, along with the United States and North Korea.

President Bush reaffirmed yesterday his commitment to the six-nation talks, which are stalled. He said that while the United States isn't sure whether North Korean leader Kim Jong Il can deliver a nuclear weapon, "I think it's best when you're dealing with a tyrant like Kim Jong Il to assume he can."

During his testimony, Jacoby said U.S. intelligence agencies believe North Korea has developed multistage intercontinental missiles capable of hitting the United States. A two-stage missile is believed capable of striking "Alaska and Hawaii, and I believe a portion of the Northwest," he said.

A three-stage missile "would be able to reach most of the continental United States," Jacoby said, adding that the three-stage missile remains a "theoretical capability in the sense that those missiles have not been tested."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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