US official: North Korea can arm missile with nuclear weapon
WASHINGTON (AP) - A top military intelligence official told a Senate committee that North Korea has the ability to arm a missile with a nuclear weapon, a potentially significant advance for the communist state.
Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, did not specify Thursday whether he was talking about a short-range missile or a long-range one that could reach the United States.
Two defense officials later said that U.S. intelligence analysts believe North Korea is several years away from being able to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile that could reach the United States from the Korean peninsula.
The defence officials, discussing intelligence assessments on the condition of anonymity, said analysts believe North Korea has not solved all of the difficulties of turning a nuclear device into a small warhead for an intercontinental ballistic missile.
North Korea has an untested missile - the Taepo Dong 2 - which is thought to be capable of reaching the United States, and is believed to have made at least one nuclear weapon, according to public intelligence estimates. Combining the two is another challenge, the officials said.
Jacoby discussed North Korea's capabilities during questioning by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Clinton asked if "North Korea has the ability to arm a missile with a nuclear device?''
Jacoby answered, "My assessment is that they have the capability to do that.''
Clinton then asked, "And do you assess that North Korea has the ability to deploy a two-stage intercontinental nuclear missile that could successfully hit U.S. territory?''
Jacoby responded, "Yes, the assessment on a two-stage missile would give capability 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 a sense that those missiles have not been tested.''
U.S. intelligence believes a two-stage Taepo Dong 2 could hit Alaska, Hawaii and perhaps parts of the West Coast.
North Korea also has shorter-range missiles which, some officials have said, may be able to carry a nuclear warhead as far as Japan.
Clinton said Jacoby's testimony was "troubling beyond words.''
The DIA, however, said in a statement late Thursday that Jacoby was only reiterating a statement he made to the committee on March 17 that North Korea's missiles were capable of carrying a warhead - but not that they had actually developed such a warhead.
Jacob's statement in March did not address whether North Korea could actually mount a nuclear warhead on its missile.
Jacoby only said that the Taepo Dong 2 might be ready for testing and that it "could deliver a nuclear warhead to parts of the United States.''
Later Thursday, Clinton and Sen. Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the committee, said in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Jacoby's "assessment that North Korea has the ability to arm a missile with a nuclear device is, we believe, the first such public assessment by an administration official.''
They urged the Bush administration to pursue direct talks with North Korea.
The administration has favored talks that also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
But President George W. Bush, at a White House news conference Thursday night, said that "the best way to deal with this issue diplomatically is to have four other nations beside ourself dealing with him. And we'll continue to do so.''
Bush also said the threat from North Korea was a chief reason for his insistence on going ahead with development of a missile defense system.
"Perhaps (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Il has got the capacity to launch a weapon; wouldn't it be nice to be able to shoot it down?'' Bush said.
Rice, traveling in Chile, said there are different assessments about North Korea.
"The North Koreans, if they engage in certain activities, are only going to deepen their isolation,'' Rice said during a news conference with Chile's president, Ricardo Lagos.
The six-nation talks aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions have been stalled since June. Washington's top envoy on the issue, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said Thursday in South Korea that the North's refusal to return to the talks is a problem but they are the best way to resolve matters. - AP