SEOUL — Secretary of State John F. Kerry strongly admonished North Korea on Friday for threatening to attack U.S. allies and interests, but also downplayed reports that Pyongyang has developed a nuclear weapon small enough to fit on the head of a ballistic missile.
Arriving here in the South Korean capital at the start of a three-nation Asian tour, Mr. Kerry said that North Korean leaders have in the past “conducted a nuclear test, so there is some kind of device.”
“But that is very different from miniaturization and delivery,” he said, in reference to the secretive and controversial process of actually condensing nuclear material down to the point at which it can be used on a ballistic missile.
Mr. Kerry appeared to take issue with alarming reports that swirled through the English-language media Thursday after Republican House member in Washington claimed that a recent assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) had found with “moderate confidence” that North Korea “has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles.”
Rep. Doug Lamborn, Colorado Republican, said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday that the unclassified version of a March DIA report had also predicted that the “reliability” of North Korea’s nuclear weapons “will be low.”
But Mr. Kerry told reporters in Seoul on Friday that it is “inaccurate to suggest that [North Korea] has tested, developed or demonstrated capabilities that are articulated in [the DIA] report,” he said. “We do not operate under the assumption that they have that fully tested, available capacity.”
“This is the Pentagon’s assessment that I am giving you,” Mr. Kerry said.
Debate over the extent to which North Korea may or may not be able back up on its threats to carry out a nuclear attack on the United States has occurred mainly outside the media spotlight surrounding the recent escalation of tensions here.
The international community is united, he said, in the “fact that North Korea will not be accepted as a nuclear power.”
Regional analysts suggest 28-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may be preparing to test launch a “Musudan” missile, believed to have a range of roughly 2,000 miles, on April 15 in conjunction with birthday celebrations for his grandfather — and regime founder — Kim Il Sung.
“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, his own obligations that he has accepted and it will be a provocative and unwanted act that will raise people’s temperature with respect to this issue,” Mr. Kerry said in Seoul.
Examining the threat
A U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said a sudden missile launch might give “some sort of off-ramp” to Mr. Kim in that it would open a “way for him to back away from his current rhetoric and save face” among North Korean military leaders and elites perceived to be questioning the young leader’s power.
A launch, the official said, would allow Kim Jong-un to say: “‘I’ve stood up to the United States, I launched a missile, we did this and now I can safely come back to my people and say, “I am the great leader, I am like my grandfather, I’m like my father and I have a strong hold on our defense.”’”