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North Korea May Have A Nuclear Warhead To Put On A Missile, Says Pentagon

NPR's Tom Gjelten and Melissa Block discuss the story

The Pentagon's intelligence arm has "moderate confidence" that North Korea may have developed the technology to create nuclear weapons that are small enough to fit on a long-range missile.

NPR's Larry Abramson filed this report for our Newscast unit:

"The Defense Intelligence Agency assessment says such a weapon would probably not be very reliable. This is the first time the U.S. has concluded that Pyongyang's nuclear efforts have reached this point.

"But at the same time, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told Congress today, North Korea's missile technology cannot reach the United States.

"But James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, said U.S. officials believe that North Korea may try to launch a missile in the coming days to celebrate the birthday of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung."

The revelation of the intelligence assessment came from Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., during a budget hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. Lamborn quoted from what he said was an unclassified portion of the report.

"DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles however the reliability will be low," the report read, according to Lamborn.

The New York Times reports the assessment — titled "Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program" — was released last month.

"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 Times reports.

Update at 6:25 p.m. ET. Not Prepared For This To Become Public:

NPR's Tom Gjelten tells All Things Considered that the intelligence community was not prepared for this assessment to be made public.

"In fact some intelligence officials told me that they thought that the line which the congressman read had been erroneously declassified or marked as unclassified," Tom said. "They were not ready for this to come out."

Tom said this is certainly new news when it comes to North Korea. We already knew North Korea had developed nuclear weapons — they have had three successful nuclear weapons tests — but this is the first time we are hearing that they have miniaturized them enough to put them on a missile.

Tom also cautions that there are many steps between miniaturizing a weapon and actually being able to deliver it to a precise location or being able to trigger it at a precise time. It's not clear where on that timeline North Korea is.

"Now separately we do know the North Koreans have a missile that the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Winnefeld said 'probably does have the range to reach the United States,' " Tom said. "But that's separate from whether they can put that warhead on the missile. Also, that missile hasn't been successfully tested."

Another caveat from Tom: "This was not a 'National Intelligence Estimate,' which is a report approved by consensus of all 16 intelligence agencies in the United States government. It was strictly a DIA report. We don't even know whether other intelligence agencies have reviewed the DIA report."

Update at 7:58 p.m. ET. Officials Question Assessment:

Earlier today, U.S. officials were not commenting on this DIA assessment because it involved classified information.

But, now, Pentagon spokesman George Little says "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."

CNN is quoting an administration official saying "we do not believe (North Korea has) developed a nuclear warhead."

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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