WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Pentagon spy agency concluded for the first time that North Korea likely has the ability to launch nuclear-armed missiles, illustrating the high stakes surrounding the escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula.
A study dated last month by the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency reckoned with "moderate confidence" that Pyongyang is able to launch nuclear-armed ballistic missiles but the weapons would probably be unreliable, officials said on Thursday.
The secret assessment - which was mistakenly marked as unclassified - was made public by Representative Doug Lamborn as he questioned senior Pentagon officials about North Korea's nuclear weapons program during a hearing of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.
"DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles, however the reliability will be low," Lamborn said, quoting from a DIA report entitled "Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program (March 2013)."
Effectively confirming the assessment, a U.S. official said that Lamborn had done nothing wrong in releasing the statement but declined further comment on the study. He said the quotation cited by Lamborn was in a section of the study that had been erroneously marked unclassified.
Lamborn did not say what range the nuclear-capable North Korean missiles might have. Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, said one analyst recently claimed nuclear warhead capability for North Korea's Nodong short- to medium-range missile. It would be able to hit U.S.-based facilities in the region, including South Korea and probably Japan.
The consensus inside the U.S. government is that North Korea does not yet have a nuclear device that would fit longer-range missiles which conceivably could reach U.S. territories.
"It's very clear that it cannot at this stage include long-range ballistic missiles because they're just basically not developed sufficiently yet to be able to do this," Kristensen said.
All the same, the release of part of the DIA report will likely raise tension on the Korean peninsula where North Korea has stationed as many as five medium-range missiles on its east coast, according to assessments by Washington and Seoul, possibly in readiness for a test-launch that would demonstrate its ability to hit U.S. bases on Guam.
Most observers say Pyongyang has no intention of starting a war that would likely bring its own destruction, but they warn of the risks of miscalculation.
The Defense Intelligence Agency is a Pentagon spy agency that gathers information about the capacity and strategic intentions of foreign militaries.
Greg Thielmann, a former State Department intelligence analyst now with the Arms Control Association advocacy group, said that while he did not have access to the classified material cited in Congress, what was said publicly about DIA's assessment sounded quite tentative.
"It really says to me that this is a speculative statement," Thielmann said. "Moderate (confidence) is higher than low confidence but it doesn't say they know very much."
He described the DIA statement as a "cautious worst-case assessment."
Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Alistair Bell and Eric Walsh