Pentagon says N Korea can launch nuclear missle

SEOUL/WASHINGTON - A Pentagon spy agency has concluded with "moderate confidence" that North Korea has developed a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile, an assessment swiftly dismissed by several US officials and South Korea.

The Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) said such a weapon would probably be unreliable. Its assessment, made public by a US lawmaker in Washington, comes amid threats of war by North Korea and just hours before US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Seoul on a visit to the region that will include stops in China and Japan.

South Korean and US officials say Pyongyang appears set to test launch a medium-range missile as a show of strength ahead of the anniversary on Monday of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il-Sung.

South Korea's Defence Ministry however said it did not believe North Korea could mount a nuclear warhead on a missile.

Despite the DIA report, the Pentagon's spokesman and the US national intelligence director both said it was "inaccurate" to infer Pyongyang had the proven ability to launch a nuclear missile.

The DIA was criticised after the start of the Iraq war in 2003 for being too bullish in predicting Baghdad might have weapons of mass destruction.

Its conclusion about North Korea follows more than a month of rising tension on the Korean peninsula.

North Korea, claiming the United States is planning to invade, has threatened Washington and Seoul with nuclear war, although most experts say Pyongyang has no intention of starting a conflict that would likely bring its own destruction.

"DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles, however the reliability will be low," Republican Representative Doug Lamborn said during a hearing of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee in Washington.

He was quoting a report entitled "Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program (March 2013)".

A US official said the quotation cited by Lamborn was in a section that had been erroneously marked unclassified. The study, dated last month, appeared to be the first time the agency had reached such a conclusion.

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