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Report: North Korea May Be Able To Deliver Nuclear Weapons


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. A stunning revelation today from a member of Congress. It came from Republican Doug Lamborn, of Colorado, during an exchange on Capitol Hill with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Lamborn cited a Defense Intelligence Agency report on North Korea's military capability, one that had not yet been released. Here's what Rep. Lamborn said.

DOUG LAMBORN: Quoting from the unclassified portion, which I believe has not yet been made public, they say, quote, "DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles. However, the reliability will be low."

BLOCK: Gen. Dempsey refused to elaborate on that finding, saying he was not sure what was classified. Joining us now, to walk through this, is NPR's Tom Gjelten. Hey, Tom.


BLOCK: That is quite a statement. North Korea currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles. So what do we make of this? We have heard, before this, that North Korea can not deliver a nuclear weapon by missile.

GJELTEN: That's right, Melissa. This is the first time we've heard that. Now, let's keep in mind what we knew, and what we didn't know. We did know, of course, that North Korea has nuclear weapons. They have - three times - successfully tested a nuclear weapon, so we knew they had that. But to deliver a nuclear weapon by missile, it has to be miniaturized. It has to be small enough so that it can fit in the warhead of a missile, with the triggering mechanism and all the technology that goes with it. And that is the part that we did not know. We didn't think - or we hadn't been told - that they were able to miniaturize their nuclear weapon enough to put on a missile. This is the first time we've heard that.

BLOCK: And again, this assessment coming from the Defense Intelligence Agency. The second half of what Congressman Lamborn said there - the reliability will be low. So translate that for us.

GJELTEN: Well, just the fact that you've got a nuclear weapon which is small enough to put on a missile, doesn't necessarily mean that you can get that missile to its location. So that will require that the missile is accurate; that the weapon will explode, you know, when you want it to. I mean, there are very many stages here, in the production of a successful nuclear weapon on a missile. We just don't know yet how many of those steps they have mastered.

BLOCK: Tom, is it clear what this report is saying about North Korea's capability, what it could reach with a nuclear weapon?

GJELTEN: No, Melissa. That is not clear. The finding here is that they can put this weapon on a missile. But whether they can put it on a missile that would actually reach the United States, is another question altogether. That's an intercontinental ballistic missile; that would be much more of a challenge.

Now separately, we do know the North Koreans have a missile. It hasn't been successfully tested yet. We do know they have a missile that the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, said probably does have the range to reach the United States. But that's separate from whether they could put a nuclear weapon on that missile, and we also don't know that that missile has been successfully tested.

BLOCK: It all does, though, sound - Tom - pretty alarming. When you talked to intelligence sources about this today, what did they say?

GJELTEN: Well, they were not prepared for this to become public. In fact, some intelligence officials told me that they thought that that line which the congressman read had been erroneously declassified, or marked as unclassified. They were not ready for this to come out.

One other thing, Melissa. Keep in mind that intelligence reports are sometimes wrong and finally, we don't know yet whether this is the assessment of the entire intelligence community or just the Defense Intelligence Agency.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Tom Gjelten. Tom, thanks.

GJELTEN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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