President Barack Obama Thursday urged North Korea to cease its threats, warning America "will take all necessary steps to protect its people," as new U.S. intelligence emerged concluding the unpredictable regime probably could put a nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile.
The missile wouldn't be very reliable, said the unclassified portions of a report by the Defense Intelligence Agency.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has rattled much of Asia with threats to launch a nuclear strike. In a fresh round Thursday, the North claimed it has "powerful striking means" on standby. Outsiders view the rhetoric as an effort to scare and pressure South Korea and the United States into changing their North Korea policies.
Obama's comments were his first since the escalation of tensions.
Speaking from the Oval Office alongside UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean, he said it was time for the isolated nation "to end the belligerent approach they have taken and to try to lower temperatures."
Calling for diplomatic solutions, Obama said, "Nobody wants to see a conflict on the Korean Peninsula."
The latest U.S. intelligence assessment on North Korea's nuclear weapons program was revealed at a public hearing on Capitol Hill. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) read aloud from what he said was an unclassified segment of a classified DIA report. "DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles. However, the reliability will be low," the report said, according Lamborn.
Notably absent from that unclassified segment of the report was any reference to what the DIA believes is the range of a missile North Korea could arm with a nuclear warhead. Much of its missile arsenal can reach South Korea and Japan, but Kim has threatened to attack the United States as well.
At the same hearing, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was asked a different version of the same question: Does North Korea have the capability to strike U.S. territory with a nuclear weapon?
Hagel said no. But he added: "Now does that mean that they won't have it or they can't have it or they're not working on it? No. That's why this is a very dangerous situation."
Nuclear weapons experts said the DIA assessment is the most specific attributed to the U.S. government on North Korea's ambitions.
"This is the clearest, most direct statement that North Korea has a miniaturized warhead," said Jeffrey Lewis, a North Korea expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He said, however, that it is "consistent with a series of statements that have been made in the past" by U.S. officials.
The disclosure comes amid growing concerns that North Korea could make good on its promise to go to war with the South. A new armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula has the potential to draw in the United States, which has a security cooperation agreement with Seoul.
Still, U.S. intelligence officials said Thursday the latest tensions appear to be driven by Kim's interests in showing he is firmly in control of North Korea, not in a real interest in provoking war. They cautioned, however, that discerning Kim's intentions is difficult. Kim took power in December 2011 after the death of his father and U.S. officials have only limited evidence to assess his thinking. "I think his primary objective is to consolidate, affirm his power," James R. Clapper Jr., director of national intelligence, told the House Intelligence Committee.