US stresses limits of NKorea’s nuclear firepower

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US Secretary of State John Kerry. AP FILE PHOTO

WASHINGTON— On the brink of an expected North Korean missile test, U.S. officials focused on the limits of Pyongyang’s nuclear firepower Friday, trying to shift attention from the disclosure that the Koreans might be able to launch a nuclear strike. They insisted that while the unpredictable government might have rudimentary nuclear capabilities, it has not proven it has a weapon that could reach the United States.

A senior defense official said the U.S. sees a “strong likelihood” that North Korea will launch a test missile in coming days in defiance of international calls for restraint. The effort is expected to test the North’s ballistic missile technologies, not a nuclear weapon, said the official, who was granted anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

Unless the missile unexpectedly heads for a U.S. or allied target, the Pentagon does not plan to try to shoot it down, several officials said. As a precaution, the U.S. has arrayed in the Pacific a number of missile defense Navy ships, tracking radars and other elements of its worldwide network for shooting down hostile missiles.

The tensions playing out on the Korean peninsula are the latest in a long-running drama that dates to the 1950-53 Korean War, fed by the North’s conviction that Washington is intent on destroying the government in Pyongyang and Washington’s worry that the North could, out of desperation, reignite the war by invading the South.

The mood in the North Korean capital, meanwhile, was hardly so tense. Many people were in the streets preparing for the birthday of national founder Kim Il Sung — the biggest holiday of the year. Even so, this year’s big flower show in Kim’s honor features an exhibition of orchids built around mock-ups of red-tipped missiles, slogans hailing the military and reminders of perceived threats to the nation.

The plain fact is that no one can be sure how far North Korea has progressed in its pursuit of becoming a full-fledged nuclear power, aside perhaps from a few people close to its new leader, Kim Jong Un.

More is known about North Korea’s conventional military firepower, and it is being heavily monitored for signs of trouble. The North has long had thousands of artillery guns positioned close enough to the border to hit Seoul with a murderous barrage on short notice. The U.S. has about 28,500 troops in the South.

Concern about the North’s threatening rhetoric jumped a notch on Thursday with the disclosure on Capitol Hill that the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency believes with “moderate confidence” that the North could deliver a nuclear weapon by ballistic missile. The DIA assessment did not mention the potential range of such a strike, but it led to a push by administration officials to minimize the significance of the jarring disclosure.

Secretary of State John Kerry said in Seoul on Friday “it’s inaccurate to suggest” that the North had fully tested and demonstrated its ability to deliver a nuclear weapon by ballistic missile, a message also delivered by the Pentagon and by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence and a former head of the DIA.

Indeed, the attention-getting DIA report made no such suggestion; it simply offered what amounts to an educated guess that the North has some level of nuclear weapons capability. It has been working on that for at least 20 years, and private analysts who closely track North Korean developments say it’s fairly clear that the North has made progress.

Within the government’s 16 intelligence agencies, analysts often disagree on even basic aspects of important issues. Deciphering the technical military advances in a reclusive society like North Korea is as much an art as a science, and the writers of intelligence reports are supposed to describe the degree of confidence in their sources in set terms.

The website of the director of national intelligence defines “high confidence” as indicating that “judgments are based on high-quality information, and/or that the nature of the issue makes it possible to render a solid judgment.” Moderate confidence means “the information is credibly sourced and plausible but not of sufficient quality or corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence.” Low confidence means the information’s “credibility and/or plausibility is questionable, or that the information is too fragmented or poorly corroborated … or that we have significant concerns or problems with the sources.”

Kerry, who arrived in Beijing Saturday to seek Chinese help in persuading North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile testing, told reporters in Seoul that the North’s progress on nuclear weapons, as described in the DIA report, pushed the country “closer to a line that is more dangerous.” Kerry also was due to visit Japan.

“If Kim Jong Un decides to launch a missile, whether it’s across the Sea of Japan or some other direction, he will be choosing willfully to ignore the entire international community,” Kerry said. “And it will be a provocation and unwanted act that will raise people’s temperatures.”

The DIA report’s assessment, written in March, was in line with a statement it issued two years earlier.

In March 2011, the agency’s director, Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, told a Senate panel, “The North may now have several plutonium-based nuclear warheads that it can deliver by ballistic missiles and aircraft as well as by unconventional means.”

David Albright, a leading North Korea expert at the Institute for Science and International Security, wrote in February, after the North’s latest nuclear test, that he believes North Korea can mount a nuclear warhead on a shorter-range Rodong ballistic missile, whose estimated range of about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) puts it within range of Japan.

“Pyongyang still lacks the ability to deploy a warhead on an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile), although it shows progress at this effort,” Albright wrote.

Bruce Bennett, a Rand Corp. specialist on North Korea, said this week there is a “reasonable chance” that North Korea has short-range nuclear missile capability, but it is “very unlikely” that it has one that can reach the U.S.

While U.S. officials are watching for a missile test as early as this weekend, they are equally concerned about other actions the North Koreans might take to provoke a reaction either by the United States or South Korea.

Officials say that the U.S. has seen North Korea moving troops, trucks and other equipment arrayed along the Demilitarized Zone that separates the North and South. And they worry about the possibility Pyongyang could once again shell a South Korean island, torpedo a ship or perhaps fire artillery rounds at South Korean people or troops.

Limited attacks of that sort could be a greater threat because they would more likely result in injuries or deaths, and could more quickly trigger a military response from South Korea or the U.S. and its allies.

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  • Albert Einstien

    It seems the young leader of NK is more POLITICALLY SAVVY than the THRONGS of WORLD LEADERS..he just wanted to INVITE WORLD ATTENTION to their B-DAY celebration..they just invited the world to celebrate with them……NOW the WORLD knows how POWERFUL NK is..that they are NOT as impoverished & hungry as the WEST propaganda say, that their people are HAPPY & UNITED…..they have DONE these without firing a single bullet….they MADE USA & it’s ALLIES respect him & made them a laughing stock of the world….and NOW NK can conveniently pursue their ADVANCEMENT in ALL aspect of daily life…lol

    DONT dare NK to prove & test their rudimentary nuclear capabilities…it will result in WW3…..give them due respect ..that is all they want….& there will be peace..they are a sovereign nation..it seems the people there LOVE & LOYAL to their leader despite of propaganda lodged against them being an impoverish people & state ..so what’s the concern of the west…nuclear defense program..ALL the superpowers have it..does it mean only the first nations has the right to self defense & advancement ?..is it NOT GLOBAL RACISM being spread by the WEST ? ..EVERY human being is equal & deserve advancement and freedom of thought…same with race & nation.. : > )

    • tarikan

      How can people give respect to these doggone nuts when they beg for food and at the same time threaten the food givers? The NoKors seem to LOVE their Dear Leader and are LOYAL to Him (PBUH, Peace Be Upon Him) because there’s no choice otherwise they skip food for days/weeks. I will give you my respect if you stop asking food from me! Do farming instead of ARMING, for crying out loud!

  • tarikan

    Celebrate the birthday of its founder Kim Il Sung? Government officials and the military will have some good food for the day but the ordinary people will again skip eating for weeks. Eat your plutonium people!

    • Sarong9146

      They have enough food to eat. Each family at Pyongyang has 120 sq meter of apartment. The city is clean and organized. People are happy and very respectful to their leaders. Everybody works. No beggars. Farms are well tended and productive. Rice paddy dikes are even planted to vegetables and grain legumes. Lots of places are cultivated to crops and productive. People are hard working, dedicated and loyal to their country and to their leaders. Nothing to envy!

      • tarikan

        Oh yeah? Why then their leadership gets bellicose if there’s no food aid forthcoming and threaten all sorts of missiles launch/nuclear detonation? Those malnourished NoKor children are myth? Btw, are you Kim Il Sung’s Japanese cook?

      • Sarong9146

        I assumed you never been to North Korea. I worked for the Ministry of Land and Environmental Protection (MOLEP) for couple of years. I know what I am talking about. In North Korea, people are also talking the ills in the Philippines like slums, beggars, street children, prostitutions, robberies, murders, etc. They are angry about the economic sanctions and the arrogance of the West on nuclear power. Next time, please don’t over expose your ignorance. It is dangerous!

      • Crazy_horse101010

        we all know north koreans are brainwashed and will say anything their govrnmemt tells them to so dont show your ignorance because it is dangerous as for sanctions tough dont like it join the world instead of ranting and making stupid threats. remember the island that got shelled and the south korean ship that was blown to hell anywhere esle that would have been war

      • tarikan

        So this food aid thing is a myth and so is the cadaver-like children shown on tv by independent media? Btw, this MOLEP, was it a NoKor govt agency or a UN? If NoKor, you could be a North Korean. Then I understand your position. Peace!

      • D3marketers

        Hmmm…how about the story of a North Korean woman who defected to South Korea 11 years ago that she sold thier house for rice since they have nothing to eat. And families who decided to take their own lives due to hunger.

      • sanjuan683

        hehehehe Tinuruan siguro ng US kung ano ang sasabihin hindi maganda laban sa Nokor. hehhehehehehe

      • Crazy_horse101010

        why is at night there is only lights at one place the capital the rest of the country is in the dark why are north koreans much smaller than south koreans the army and commie lackeys get food but not the people who grow it

      • Rey

        Ha! Most probably only in Pyongyang. What you saw was controlled propaganda. Perhaps you are not aware of younger rural NoKors who eat tree barks thinking it is a normal thing to do. They also eat grass everyday. Harvest may be good but most go to the government to feed the millions of unproductive armed forces personnel.

      • sanjuan683

        Yan ang dapat gayahin ng mga Pinoy, hindi yun puro asa sa US na magdedepensa raw sa Pinas kalokohan yun. Sinisiraan lang siguro ng US ito Nokor alam mo itong US magaling sa mga propaganda war. Kapag nakaitikim ito na giyera sa sariling nila lupa o territory matatauhan itong US. Kalimitan giyera pinasukan ng US hindi sa sariling nila lupa kundi sa ibang bansa. Kaya nang banatan yun twin tower nila natauhan sila. Pero nakaganti rin sila nadedo rin si Bin.

  • speaksoftlylove

    Nagtext sa akin si Kim Jong Un, cancelled daw ang thermonuclear war dahil navirus yong mga computers ng guided missiles. Windows xp lang kasi ang gamit nila at ayaw na raw magupdate ang microsoft. Nakatirik at papuputukin na nga sana yong dalawang Musudan missiles pero humiga ulit na parang etits na may prostate cancer dahil navirus nga.

    Kaya hayun nagpalit muna sa sila ng operating system na windows 8. To be announced later na lang daw.

    • speaksoftlylove

      Syanga pala. Akala ninyo si Psy yong naglaunch sa South Korea ng sequel ng Gang Nam Style?

      Make no mistake about it. Si Kim Jong Un yong nagconcert, nautakan na naman ang buong mundo.

      • sanjuan683

        Titignan mo totoy na totoy si Kim, pero kabado din si Kanuto baka maisahan sila ni Kim. hehehehehehe

    • Marx Louis Wang

      Sino gawa virus ikaw!?

    • sanjuan683

      Ang galing mo tsong, eh kung batukan kaya ni Kim Jong Un baka lumapad ang batok mo maging laptop. hehehehehehehehe

  • wakats

    Tomorrow, April 15, is the birth anniversary of Kim Jung Un’s father and the day is celebrated with much funfare every year, except more for tomorrow. NK is expected to test-fire 2 powerful Musudan missiles to determine their effective range over the Sea of Japan, their previous usual routes.

    Sec. Kerry is crystal-clear on US position that they won’t allow NK to be a nuclear power, but only wish NK won’t push through with the much-awaited missile testing on pain of more international sanctions.

    NK is known for double-talk and won’t stop until they have amassed sufficient nuclear bombs and perfected the technology to miniaturize them for missile delivery anywhere. It would be wise for the US and allies to bite the bullet now while NK is incapable of massive retaliation than wait for the time when they can match the West for nuclear over-kill….

    • sanjuan683

      Ang gulang din ng US, gusto nila sila lang ang may nuclear power puede ba iyon. Siyempre hindi, nangangarap din ang ibang bansa magkaroon.

  • jgl414567

    Most North Koreans are cowards because for too many years they allow a murderous and plundering family to rule and abuse them, same with the Chinese they allow a tyrannical communist party to rule over them!

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