Jeffrey LewisJacoby Claims North Korea Can Arm Taepo Dong 2 With Nuke

Yesterday, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) asked the Director of Defense Intelligence (DIA) Agency Admiral Lowell Jacoby whether or not “North Korea has the ability to arm a missile with a nuclear device?”

Admiral Jacoby replied: “My assessment is that they have the capability to do that, yes Maam.”

Wrong answer, Lowell.

As you can see from the video, Cambone jots down what Jacoby just said and Clinton moves in for the kill.

The scene is a study in elegant political choreography—the only person unaware of the defenestration is Jacoby himself.

Jacoby’s statement was not the public position of the IC. In fact, Paul Kerr points out, Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research Thomas Fingar offered a more cautious assessment of Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities on 16 February 2005, testifying that “there is no evidence that it has produced such weapons and mated them to a missile capable of delivering them to the United States.” (more)

Clinton knew that immediately. Afteward, Clinton and Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) wrote a letter to Rice, beating the Bush Administration over the head with Jacoby’s revelation:

At today’s public Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Senator Clinton asked Vice Admiral Lowell F. Jacoby, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, whether it was his assessment that “North Korea has the ability to arm a missile with a nuclear device?” In response, Admiral Jacoby said “my assessment is that they have the capability to do that, yes…” Admiral Jacoby also confirmed prior assessments by Administration officials that North Korean two stage intermediate intercontinental missiles could reach the United States.

Admiral Jacoby’s assessment that North Korea has the ability to arm a missile with a nuclear device is, we believe, the first such public assessment by an Administration official. This assessment is only the latest development, coming after four years of North Korean escalatory action, including their declaration in February that they have nuclear weapons, and that they no longer consider themselves bound by their self-declared missile-testing moratorium, as well as recent press accounts of unusual activity at nuclear and missile sites, that could presage nuclear or missile tests. All of this continues to strongly suggest that the threat posed by the North Korean nuclear program is increasing. Yet we have not seen an aggressive diplomatic effort to address this threat.

DIA reportedly put out a statement that Jacoby’s comments were consistent with prior testimony.

That’s not true, though. IC statements have focused on the Taepo Dong 2’s nuclear weapon sized payload rather than the size of North Korea nuclear weapons. Jacoby’s prepared testimony continued that tradition, explaining that the Taepo Dong 2 “could deliver a nuclear warhead to parts of the United States in a two stage variant and target all of North America with a three stage variant.”

Clinton knew exactly what she was doing. One Congressional staffer at the hearing later told the Los Angeles Times that “We did not anticipate the answer we got. But the answer did not surprise us.”

Read this reporting by David Sanger in the New York Times back in July 2003. Sanger reported that intelligence agencies believed North Korea was developing a warhead small enough for missiles and was briefing that information to US allies:

American intelligence officials now believe that North Korea is developing the technology to make nuclear warheads small enough to fit atop the country’s growing arsenal of missiles, potentially putting Tokyo and American troops based in Japan at risk, according to officials who have received the intelligence reports.

In the assessment—which they have shared with Japan, South Korea and other allies in recent weeks—officials at the Central Intelligence Agency said American satellites had identified an advanced nuclear testing site in an area called Youngdoktong. At the site, equipment has been set up to test conventional explosives that, when detonated, could compress a plutonium core and set off a compact nuclear explosion.

Some intelligence officials say they believe that the existence of the testing range is evidence that North Korea intends to manufacture much more sophisticated weapons that would be light enough to put onto its growing arsenal of medium- and long-range missiles.

Previously, American officials had said they were uncertain whether North Korea had received enough outside technical help to even attempt the precision steps required to detonate such a “miniaturized” nuclear warhead.

The new testing capability does not mean North Korea can actually build a small weapon, but it suggests that the North Koreans are moving to combine their two most advanced weapons projects: nuclear technology and missile technology. The new intelligence reports suggest that they could develop such a weapon in less than a year, but some officials warn that that assessment represents what one called “a best guess rather than a solid estimate.”

For months, Washington has been trying to convince Asian nations, especially South Korea and China, that the North Korean threat is so urgent that it requires a unified diplomatic front to force the country to give up its weapons. The new intelligence, officials who have seen it say, apparently is being marshaled to support the administration’s argument.

According to officials who have been briefed on the American reports, conventional explosions simulating a nuclear detonation have been set off at the testing site, which is near North Korea’s main nuclear complex. North Korea has never tested a nuclear weapon, though the C.I.A. long ago estimated that it manufactured two crude devices in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s.

North Korea, unlike Iraq, has made no secret of its plan to develop nuclear weapons. Now, administration officials say they fear that the North is on the verge of producing five or six new weapons, some of which might be miniaturized.

“This would give them the range they never had before, and the chance to spread their threat far beyond South Korea,” said a senior Asian official, noting that about 60,000 American troops are based in Japan.

The new intelligence estimates provided to Asian allies, however, left it unclear how quickly the North could produce the small warheads. The worst-case estimate, officials say, is less than a year.

If the New York Times story is accurate, the Bush Administration was saying one thing to allies and another in the US press. Clinton caught Admiral Jacoby—never really regarded as the sharpest shovel in the shed—between those two stories.

Update: In responses to unclassified Questions for the Record from the 2003 Worldwide Threat hearing, the CIA offered some detail about North Korea’s nuclear designs:

We assess that North Korea has produced one or two simple fission-type nuclear weapons and has validated the designs without conducting yield-producing nuclear tests. Press reports indicate North Korea has been conducting nuclear weapon-related high explosive tests since the 1980s in order to validate its weapons design(s). With such tests, we assess North Korea would not require nuclear tests to validate simple fission weapons.

Keeping in mind that alleged Pakistani design assistance focused on HEU designs, I am skeptical that North Korea’s “one or two simple fission-type nuclear weapons” utilizing Pu would be small enough for the Taepo Dong 2’s 700 kg payload.

And, on another note, David Wright outlines some of the challenges that North Korea would face in making the Taepo Dongs 1 and 2 into operational weapons.

For a review of North Korea’s ballistic missile programs, see Arms Control Wonk on 13 February 2005

Yet another update: A US official told the Financial Times that Jacoby “was not trying to make a new assessment or say that the US believes that North Korea currently has the capability to put a nuclear warhead on a functioning Taepo-dong 2 missile which would have the capacity to reach the United States.”

He may not have been trying, but that is what he said.


  1. EARL (History)

    And that leaves range and accuracy. Are there any estimates for what sort of CEP that 2/3 stage hypothetical creature could be? Seems that guidance technology could be as tricky as warhead size ..

    Editor’s note: Be sure to check out North Korean Missile Threat to the US Has Been Overstated, Statement from Dr. David Wright, physicist and director of the UCS Global Security Program, 13 February 2003. ACW

  2. Michael F. Altfeld (History)

    The most important thing about the TD-2 is its range rather than its CEP, because the North Koreans are not likely to be interested in shooting at hard targets. They are likely interested in holding US cities at risk for purposes of deterrence, and cities are awfully large bulls eyes. Indeed, all the North Koreans probably have to do to achieve a good measure of deterrence is to be able to achieve a nuclear detonation somewhere within the United States. I have seen unclassified range estimates of the TD-2 that vary from as little as about 3500 km to as much as 15,000 km depending on payload and whether the 3rd stage is in place). But, in testimony before a Senate committee in 2003, then CIA Director Tenet and DIA Director Jacoby agreed that the TD-2 had the range to reach the west coast of the continental US. Even if it could only range Fairbanks with a nuclear weapon, however, that might prove sufficient from a deterrence perspective. CEP cannot be estimated because the missile, to my knowledge, has never been tested. However, as I noted above, its accuracy does not have to be that great if its purpose is purely that of a deterrent.