North Korean Breakthrough? Or U.S. Intelligence Snafu? (Or Both?)

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DoD photo / Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

Army General Martin Dempsey declined to answer on Thursday when asked if he felt DIA was right when the Pentagon intelligence agency suggested North Korea could put a nuclear warhead atop one of its missiles

The news flashed around the world late Thursday afternoon, East Coast time, after Representative Doug Lamborn, a Republican from Colorado, read a mistakenly declassified Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) excerpt aloud at a congressional hearing:

DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles. However, the reliability will be low.

That was the shot.

The chaser, which got much less attention, came later on Thursday from Pentagon spokesman George Little:

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.

“The statement read by the member,” James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, added, “is not an intelligence-community assessment.”

So what’s the average American supposed to make of this?

First, those North Koreans, incapable of feeding their own 24 million people, are incredibly good nuclear and missile engineers. The DIA was saying similar things about Iraq slightly more than a decade ago. That turned out to be flat-out wrong — just like how U.S. intelligence failed to foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 9/11 attacks. President Reagan’s “trust but verify” may not be possible here, but big grains of salt are.

(MORE: North Korea’s Kim Il Sung Birthday Anniversaries Lead to Shows of Military Force)

The U.S. government is taking the North Korean threat seriously. Kim Jong Un no doubt watched Lamborn’s clip, over and over again, chortling at the impact his efforts, viewed through the always distorting prism of U.S. intelligence, are having on the U.S. Over the past month, the Pentagon has boosted missile defense throughout the western Pacific and announced plans to boost a West Coast missile shield designed to protect the U.S. mainland from North Korea attack.

The DIA assessment apparently was not shared widely across the government, given the reaction of Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who heard Lamborn read the intel summary.

‘General,’ Lamborn asked, ‘would you agree with that assessment by DIA?’

Dempsey punted. ‘You know, Congressman, with the number of caveats you put on the front end of this, I’m not going to — I can’t touch that one, because I’m not sure now — hasn’t been released; some of it’s classified; some of it’s unclassified,’ he said. ‘Let me take that one for the record’ and answer it later.

‘Let me repeat. Maybe I caught you a little bit off guard here, because you’ve had so many questions today,’ Lamborn said near the end of a lengthy hearing on the Pentagon’s 2014 budget. ‘But they concluded — and this is public; this is unclassified, so I can make it public — ‘DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles. However, the reliability will be low.”

Dempsey: ‘And your question is, Do I agree with the DIA’s assessment?’


Dempsey: ‘Well, I haven’t seen it, and you said it’s not publicly released, so I choose not to comment on it.’

Ouch. It was really a pretty simple question: Do you think the DIA is right?

(MORE: In the Shadow of North Korean Threats, South Korea Shrugs)

Regardless of whether or not the statement was “publicly released” or, even less significantly, “seen” by the general, he owed his best assessment of the DIA’s contention then and there. U.S. and nuclear-missile experts by and large believe North Korea currently lacks a missile-warhead combination that could threaten the U.S.

Second: How can a passage like that quoted by Lamborn be mistakenly declassified, as Pentagon officials said was the case after he read it? This isn’t water-cooler chatter; this is important national-security data contained in a March DIA report titled Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program (March 2013). If it turns out to be true that this was declassified in error, heads should roll. They won’t, but they should.

Third: North Korea has been pushing to put nuclear warheads atop its missiles for years. Intelligence is a game of grays, not black and white, and they’re somewhere between light gray and dark gray. “The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But, we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” That was Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser, referring to Saddam a decade ago.

Fourth: if North Korea ever fires such a missile at the U.S. or its allies, it will cease, shortly thereafter, to exist.

Finally: North Korea cares more about its own survival than it cares about nuclear weapons. Therefore, once it gets them, it will never use them.

But conceding that point would take all the fun out of the DIA’s slipup, so let’s just ignore it.


"Finally: North Korea cares more about its own survival than it cares about nuclear weapons. Therefore, once it gets them, it will never use them."

This arrogant little article is so snide in its dismissal of the possibilities of a north korean nuke, and goes as far as to suggest it would be a useless thing for the north koreans, so we just don't need to worry.  let me enlighten this stupid author about how a nuke could be useful for the north.  with a working nuke, north korea would be significantly empowered to wage a conventional war on the south, knowing that they could force a ceasefire by threatening to use the nuke if they find their regime threatened.   in that situation, you have to have a lot of faith that the generals who run that country are not as arrogant and stupid as this article.

the stupid references to iraq to bring to mind the boy who cried wolf.  this is a serious matter, and previous mistakes don't mean we just ignore all future concerns.  each situation must be evaluated on its own merits.

overall, the idea that we should not worry if a dangerous state like north korea acquires nuclear weapons is another variation in the theme of neville chamberlain.  sadly, we will apparently never learn.



‘You know, Congressman, with the number of caveats you put on the front end of this, I’m not going to — I can’t touch that one, because I’m not sure now — hasn’t been released; some of it’s classified; some of it’s unclassified,’ he said. ‘Let me take that one for the record’ and answer it later."

Are there courses for US government officials to learn how to speak like that, or was it written by his 4 year old daughter?

changeagent12 1 Like

All warfare is based on deception. 

On the day the policy of attack is put into effect, close the passes, have no further intercourse with the enemy's envoys and exhort the temple council to execute the plans.

When the enemy presents an opportunity, speedily take advantage of it.  Anticipate him in seizing something he values and move in accordance with a date secretly fixed.  

The doctrine of war is to follow the enemy situation in order to decide in battle.

Therefore at first be shy as a maiden.  When the enemy gives you an opening be swift as a hare and he will be unable to withstand you.

Sun Tzu The Art of War.


This is an administration that is lacking in good intelligence - that's the scary part - the general's refusal to answer is brinksmanship 101.

I'd be upset with my general if he answered like that - oh, but this is a budget hearing - no wonder no one knows anything...


On point four, if the US goes nuclear, South Korea would suffer from the fallout, would it not?



depends upon weather, size of the weapon we used on them in relation to the distance it is from the border to South Korea, and air-burst vs ground burst with an air-burst being the best bang for the buck always.

If we dropped a 30 kiloton nuke on them the South wont have much to worry about unless the weather drives fallout straight south... If we drop a 10 megaton weapon there might be fallout worth fussing over.

weapon efficiency is very important in regards to fallout and the bang and finally the bomb being "salted" or not... (For instance North Korea could salt their bombs with cobalt thus meaning even if they miss by quite a bit the fallout will be very dangerous.

Billymaystvoffer 1 Like

It's a negotiation trick, the US is trying to convince North Korea their threats still have credibility, because it's the only way North Korea can back down without losing face to the whole East Asia region. North Korea's existence depends on how seriously the international community takes it, and the only way they can survive. The US is giving North Korea the credibility they want (our reaction to their nuclear capabilities is part of that payment) in an attempt to prevent further incidents for South Korea, such as the shelling of one of their islands a few years back. It's all one big hostage negotiation, 50 years in the making :(


It was a budget hearing. Fear=more money.


NK can not rant and threaten to attack the US with nuclear weapons and then be allowed to carry out a test unless we have idiots in the Pentagon and seriously doubt that are Mark Thompson. American citizens have to be forwarned whenever a possiblity of war exists if time allows the alert. It does not take a missle to deliver a nuclear pay load any air land or sea vehicle will do the job. Kim declared war so like it or not we are at war.

DeweySayenoff 1 Like

@KarenSherryBrackett Sadly, Karen, a historian you are not.  North Korea did not "declare war".  North Korea has always BEEN AT WAR.  The "end of the Korean war" wasn't a peace treaty, but an armistice.  

In short, nothing has changed between the United States, South Korea and North Korea insofar as war goes.  To say otherwise belies a complete lack of understanding of the current diplomatic situation.


@DeweySayenoff @KarenSherryBrackett And yet a technical state of war does not quite equal an actual state of war. People who have been following developments on the Korean Peninsula know that some time ago North Korea plainly stated they would interpret any new U.N. sanctions as an act of war and respond accordingly. That is the main reason that the usual overheated NK rhetoric during annual U.S/South Korea military exercises has become molten and the situation so dangerous. (That plus the fact that U.S./S.K. forces are more roubust this time around.)   

And of course as an historian, you would understand too that ultimately the source of the current climate of instability on the Korean Peninsula began with the election of George  Bush. Prior to his presidency, President Kim De-jung's policy of NK engagement, for which  he won the Nobel Prize, has made slow but steady progress in reconciling the two Koreas. But then President Bush firstly insulted Kim De-jung to his face (regarding this policy) during a Washington visit and subsequently cut communication with North Korea, halted oil shipments to it, and later, in his infamous "Axis of Evil"  speech, tacitly threatened NK with nuclear weapons, all violations of the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework that had defused a serious confrontation at that time.

To conclude, the current situation only goes to show that the bombastic threats and insults of the neocons begat the same response from North Korea. And by the way, it was under big bad George's watch that the North Koreans acquired nuclear weapons...  


The Congressman was wrong. The fact that a document is released to the public does NOT mean it's unclassified. If it was released in error, as this seemed to be, no one with a clearance is allowed to publicly comment on it. If the general had, he'd be subject to disciplinary action that could include being stripped of his clearance. As it is, I expect the Congressman to have his DoD Security briefing refreshed. One CANNOT draw a conclusion from the General's reticence, other than he knows secret document security rules.


Even if they did have nuclear capabilities the USA wouldn't do anything.  NK is completely untouchable.


@Fr0ntSight Those NK bombers were made in 1950.  Are they untouchable because they would fall apart if touched?


@changeagent12 @Fr0ntSight  No.  They are untouchable because every country refuses to touch them.  They can cause enough harm to make it not worth it apparently.


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