North Korea’s recent weapons tests and increasingly belligerent rhetoric have left many Americans wondering when they should start freaking out in earnest. On Thursday, Republican Representative Doug Lamborn of Colorado inched the nation closer to assuming the fetal position under their desks when he revealed three hours into a House Armed Services Committee budget hearing that the Pentagon now believes North Korea has a nuclear device small enough to mount on a ballistic missile. According to a previously unreleased and only partially unclassified document provided to lawmakers, the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency “assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles; however the reliability will be low.” Initially, that sounded pretty bad, but following the Pentagon’s attempt to elaborate, it just sounded confusing.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement on Thursday evening, “North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile,” adding that there’s no consensus in the U.S. intelligence community on the report’s findings. The Pentagon issued another statement, saying, “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.” While it seems like Pentagon officials were contradicting the report, their comments are actually carefully worded to allow for the possibility that North Korea has nuclear ballistic missiles; they just haven’t “fully tested” them or “demonstrated” that capability.
Foreign officials tried to downplay the report as well, with the South Korean Defense Ministry saying they “have doubt that North Korea has reached the stage of miniaturization.” However, the New York Times might have the most calming assessment of the new information. It notes that the Defense Intelligence Agency “a decade ago was among those that argued most vociferously — and incorrectly — that Iraq had .”
Not that anyone should stop worrying about North Korea. At yesterday’s hearing, Clapper reminded Congress that when it comes to Kim Jong-un, “there’s no telling how he’s going to behave.” The tiny nation is still expected to test a mid-range missile, which could be capable of reaching U.S. bases in Okinawa and Guam, any day now. In Seoul today for meetings with South Korean leaders, John Kerry warned North Korea that such a test would be a “huge mistake” and a “provocative and unwanted act.”
He also added a subtle threat. “Kim Jong Un needs to understand, as I think he probably does, what the outcome of a conflict would be. Our hope is we can get back to talks.”