Kerry walks fine line on North Korea

Warns of US response, hedges on threat level

Kim Jong Un “needs to understand, as I think he probably does, what the outcome of the conflict would be,” said Secretary of State John Kerry.
Kim Jong Un “needs to understand, as I think he probably does, what the outcome of the conflict would be,” said Secretary of State John Kerry.

SEOUL — Secretary of State John Kerry warned North Korea’s young leader Friday that his country would lose any military showdown with the United States, and sought to downplay a US intelligence report that North Korea is now capable of delivering a nuclear-armed missile.

The dual signals from Kerry were part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to force North Korea to back away from its increasingly bellicose rhetoric, while also assuaging the concerns of allies and the American public.

Speaking in the South Korean capital, Kerry pledged strong support for that country as well as for Japan against threats from Pyongyang, saying that its leader, Kim Jong Un, ‘‘needs to understand, as I think he probably does, what the outcome of the conflict would be.’’


The tone of that reference to US military power seemed designed to reinforce a message the administration has also delivered more explicitly in recent weeks by repositioning US missile defense equipment and sending nuclear-capable stealth bombers on conspicuous missions over South Korea.

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At the same time, Kerry attempted to tamp down the significance of a recent intelligence report that concluded that North Korea is now capable of making a nuclear warhead that can be mounted on a ballistic missile and fired.

If true, it would mean that North Korea has crossed what many regard as the most difficult technical barrier to being able to launch a nuclear attack, even if limited in scope and range.

Kerry said that ‘‘it is inaccurate to suggest’’ that Pyongyang ‘‘has fully tested, developed, or demonstrated capabilities that are articulated in that report.’’

Kerry was referring to an assessment secretly circulated last month by the Defense Intelligence Agency, a spy service that gathers intelligence and produces analysis for the Pentagon. The finding was made public Thursday when it was mentioned by a Republican congressman during a hearing on Capitol Hill.


North Korea has previously tested stationary nuclear devices, as well as missiles with ranges that could reach parts of the United States. But it has not shown that it has mastered the technical challenge of making a nuclear warhead small enough and strong enough to be carried by missile to a distant target before detonating.

But Kerry’s use of the phrase ‘‘fully tested, developed, or demonstrated,’’ seemed to allow for some ambiguity on the question of whether North Korea is capable of making a nuclear warhead, even if it hasn’t exhibited that technology to the outside world.

Statements from the White House and the nation’s intelligence chief included similarly hedged terms.

What may seem like administration obfuscation is ‘‘a genuine issue,’’ said George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ‘‘As any of these guys will acknowledge, our intelligence on North Korea is very, very limited. We don’t know what we don’t know.’’

‘‘A normal country in normal circumstances would not go down the road of relying on such a capability if they haven’t tested it numerous times,’’ Perkovich said. ‘‘When they say they haven’t demonstrated it, that’s true and meaningful . . . but they could have stuff that in desperation they could use. And it could work.’’


US officials with access to classified reports said that the Defense Intelligence Agency tends to goes further than other spy agencies in its assessments of threats, including North Korea’s nuclear program, because of the agency’s unique mission.

The agency is focused on missions that include identifying threats to American forces overseas, and making sure that Pentagon leaders are prepared for developments that require a US military response.

Still, officials said that the agency’s conclusion on North Korea, which it conveyed with ‘‘moderate confidence,’’ is not contradicted by findings from the CIA or other US spy agencies.

US officials noted that the latest agency language is consistent with its earlier statements.

In 2011, then-director Ronald Burgess testified that North Korea ‘‘may now have several plutonium-based nuclear warheads that it can deliver by ballistic missiles.’’

The urgency of that question has been heightened by the menacing behavior of North Korea’s young and relatively untested leader.

Last month, the North Korean news agency released pictures of Kim in a ‘‘war room’’ where a large map was marked with lines meant to depict missile flight paths to major cities in the United States.

US officials have said that and other provocative moves seem aimed at bolstering Kim’s standing in North Korea and abroad.

The existence of the spy agency’s latest report surfaced at a congressional hearing this week during questioning by Republican Representative Doug Lamborn of Colorado, who read an unclassified portion of what others described as a classified but routine update for policymakers on North Korea’s nuclear program.