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In addition, former CIA official Robert Sutter, an international affairs professor at George Washington University, noted that diplomatic efforts to engage North Korea are “at an impasse.”

He noted that the U.S. and North Korea last year had reached a deal to exchange humanitarian aid for Pyongyang’s halting its uranium enrichment program. But the deal was scuttled with Kim Jung-il’s death.

“It’s an old problem that is getting worse,” said Mr. Sutter.

Specialists on the subject and officials said the North Koreans likely will continue to improve their launch capabilities.

“I think that they have progressively gained better technology over time, and they have progressively gained that through a number of methods over a number of years and decades,” said Adm. Locklear.

“To the degree that they will be more successful than they were last time in such a short period of time I can’t tell you how they assess that,” he said. “Should they choose to go ahead with it, we’ll just have to see how it goes.”