Analysts fear a dramatic advance in North Korea’s nuclear missile technology, revealed inadvertently during a Congressional hearing Thursday, will quickly find its way to Iran — forcing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fast-track a long-contemplated attack against Tehran’s nuclear-enrichment facilities.
Pentagon officials are playing down a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assessment that North Korea probably has the ability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and place it on an ICBM. U.S. officials say that miniaturization capability, if it exists, is untested and unreliable.
In February, North Korea detonated what is described as a “lighter, miniaturized atomic bomb.” At the time, there was speculation this could signal the Hermit Kingdom had developed a nuclear warhead that it could place on its long-range missiles. Pentagon officials, however, continued to insist North Korea was at least a year away from developing that capability.
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Jerusalem Post defense analyst Yaakov Katz, author of “Israel vs. Iran: The Shadow War,” tells Newsmax that U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials have generally agreed that it would take Iran six to 12 months to build a nuclear device once it tried to break out and enrich its material from the 20-percent to the 90-percent level required. Beyond that, intelligence experts have projected, it would then take Iran another year or two to produce a miniaturized warhead that could be installed on a missile.
Now, Katz says, the time lag between reaching nuclear capability and Iran’s ability to arm a missile with a nuclear warhead appears to have vanished. That means Thursday’s revelation could reduce Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nonmilitary options against Iran, forcing the Jewish state to step up its timetable for attacking the Persian nation should it acquire enough enriched uranium to be a significant threat.
“If the North Koreans are much more advanced than we assumed, then that could mean that when the Iranians surge to move forward, that the whole time frame would change also,” Katz tells Newsmax. “It would mean Israel and the West would have to revisit the time frames that they’ve put in for the Iranians, and that could be much shorter now — which means your window of opportunity [to attack] is also becoming smaller.”
Experts say Israel would have to assume that any North Korean miniaturization technology would soon find its way into the hands of Iran’s mullahs. In fact, it is possible Iranian technology enabled North Korea’s push to miniaturize its warheads — the step that makes them capable of being installed on an ICBM. There is widespread agreement in the intelligence community that the two embattled nations routinely exchange technology, and sometimes military hardware as well.
“That’s no secret,” says Katz. “There’s been a lot of cooperation between the Iranians and the North Koreans.”
He adds: “Israel has always made the assessment that whatever is going on in North Korea, you have to assume it’s also … taking place in Iran. So that technical cooperation is still working.”
Obama administration officials have been downplaying the immediate threat from North Korea, even as the Pentagon rushed a THAAD missile interceptor system, which had not been scheduled to enter service until 2015, to Guam to protect American interests. It also announced it would revive the Bush-era plan to add 14 more interceptors to the missile shield that protects America’s West Coast, which it had previously canceled.
The news that one U.S. intelligence agency believes North Korea already has achieved the ability to design nuclear-missile warheads was inadvertently disclosed by GOP Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado on Thursday during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. He was reading a portion of a classified document that had been erroneously marked declassified.
That disclosure means Israeli leaders must now assume the window between the moment Iran acquires nuclear capability, and the horrific moment when it could launch an attack on a major Israeli city such as Tel Aviv, would be a matter of months or weeks rather than years, experts say.
That North Korea has helped Iran bolster its missile technology is well established. In recent years, as Iranian technology surpassed that of North Korea, the technical assistance flowed the other way as well, sources say.
According to Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Bruce Klingner: “Clearly there has been a decades-long missile relationship, and it began with a one-way sale of missiles to Iran. … Over time it became a two-way, collaborative relationship.”
Klingner adds that a collaborative relationship between the two rogue nations on nuclear technology “is beyond question,” although much more difficult to assess due to its secretive nature.
One example of that cooperation: A February 2010 diplomatic cable released by the WikiLeaks organization revealed that Iran had obtained 19 advanced North Korean missiles with a Russian design known as R-27. The R-27 was initially used aboard Soviet submarines to launch nuclear missiles. At the time, analysts predicted the acquisition of the R-27 would enable Iran to reverse-engineer a new class of missiles with greater range and payloads.
“Every once in a while, you hear reports a North Korean scientist has popped up in Iran or vice versa,” Human Events senior writer John Hayward tells Newsmax.
“We have been assuming … we’ll know the exact moment when Iran has everything it needs to make a devastating weapon,” Hayward adds. “But it seems from today’s news we don’t really have that confidence anymore. We don’t know where either Iran or North Korea really is.”
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Intelligence experts have decried the dearth of U.S. “humint,” or human intelligence, from North Korea. As for Iran, Israeli intelligence is believed to have both human and electronic intelligence sources. While North Korea’s capabilities are often opaque, Katz says intelligence officers in Israel and the West have “always been quite confident” that they will know almost immediately should Iran try to break out and enrich its uranium to be nuclear-weapons capable. And so far that has not occurred.
In his September speech to the United Nations, Netanyahu spoke of a “red line” that Iran must not be allowed to cross. He also stressed that time was already running out to rein in Iran’s nuclear activities.
“Each day, that point is getting closer,” he said. “That’s why I speak today with such a sense of urgency. And that’s why everyone should have a sense of urgency. … The relevant question is not when Iran will get the bomb. The relevant question is at what stage can we no longer stop Iran from getting the bomb.”
Thursday’s revelation hardly marked the first time national-security experts have underestimated the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear progress. Just months before the CIA announced in January 1994 that North Korea probably had developed nuclear weapons, U.S. diplomats were negotiating with North Korea in the belief there was still time to reach an agreement.
Now, U.S. analysts appear once again to have underestimated its capabilities.
Before the DIA analysis was revealed, Michael A. Dodge of the conservative Heritage Foundation told Newsmax: “North Korea has demonstrated the basic technology to hit the U.S.; the question is whether they can miniaturize the nukes to put on the missiles. We think we have some time before they can do that, but in the past we have had a tendency to underestimate the North Korean threat.”
Hayward of Human Events doubts Israel would take action against Iran while the U.S. national security apparatus is on tenterhooks over North Korea. But he says the news that North Korea may have mastered the ability to miniaturize its nuclear weapons and put them on a ballistic missile has moved up Netanyahu’s red line for unilaterally launching an attack on Iran’s nuclear-enrichment facilities.
“He believes that ‘moderate confidence’ assessment, and he has said many times they can’t afford to take risks. That was the whole point of that speech where he drew the bomb on that piece of paper at the U.N. He was busy explaining: ‘We can’t gamble;
we can’t suppose they’re years away when they’re not. We have to stop this before it crosses a certain point.’
“And if you’ll remember, that ‘certain point’ was basically getting things that are small enough to be assembled in locations that are almost impossible to strike, and then getting them into ballistic missiles. It’s not just the missile capability. It’s the fact that once you get there, it becomes very difficult to stop the process. So I think he may see that red line being right on top of him.”
In December, North Korea launched a Unha-3 missile that placed an object into orbit. U.S. officials have estimated the range of that missile at some 6,200 miles, sufficient to threaten Guam, Hawaii, Alaska, and the U.S. West Coast. The Musudan missiles North Korea is expected to launch in coming days have a much shorter range, about 2,500 miles. But that still puts Japan and Guam well within range. The United states has 28,000 military personnel in South Korea; 40,000 in Japan; and Guam, a U.S. territory, has a population of approximately 160,000. It also hosts major U.S. Navy and Air Force bases.
In recent days the administration has responded to the North Korean threat by rushing advanced radar systems and anti-missile capabilities to the Pacific theater, and decided to beef up its missile interceptor capability on the West Coast.
Says Klingner: “I think the Obama administration’s reversal on the missile interceptor programs was the administration getting caught flat-footed apparently, supposedly by the long-standing North Korean nuclear and missile threat. … They based it on a sudden, unexpected acceleration of the Korean missile threat. Well, it was not.”
In fact, Klingner tells Newsmax, a 2001 intelligence assessment predicted that by 2015, at the current rate of progress, the United States would face an ICBM threat from North Korea.
Former U.S. ambassador to North Korea Christopher Hill, meanwhile, told Fox News on Friday that the Pentagon’s insistence that North Korea has yet to test the accuracy of its nuclear-missile technology is largely irrelevant. Whether the DIA’s projection, which is made with “moderate” rather than “high” confidence, is accurate now misses the larger point, he says.
“Sooner or later that report is going to be correct, so the same old question is, what are we going to do about it? … We’ve got to make very clear that we are not going to accept this,” Hill said.
He added that North Korea’s bellicose missile launches and nuclear-arms development must now be the No. 1 diplomatic issue between the United States and China.
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