The Pentagon Can't Make Up Its Mind About North Korea's Nuclear Capabilities

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The Pentagon is trying to be tactful about how it presents the threat of North Korea firing a nuclear missile capable of reaching the United States. But the brass is starting to seem a little cagey when it comes down to giving the American public clear answers. You can't blame them. It's a cagey situation.

Let's get specific. At exactly 7:32 p.m. on Thursday evening, Reuters published two separate stories about the Pentagon's position on North Korea's nuclear capabilities. One reflects what outlets like The New York Times are reporting about the military's latest position on the issue. The other appears to reflect the opposite. One headline reads, "Pentagon says North Korea can likely launch nuclear missile." The other reads, " 'Inaccurate' to suggest North Korea has proven nuclear missile ability: Pentagon."

Does anybody else think those two headlines about what's essentially the same story is a little misleading? Don't blame Reuters. It's simply quoting what Pentagon officials have been saying. 

It's at first unclear why the Pentagon is sending out seemingly conflicting statements, but when you read closer, you realize that the wording is carefully selected so that they're not actually conflicting. Speaking at a a hearing of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Rep. Doug Lamborn quoted a Defense Intelligence Agency paper from March. At that point in time, the Pentagon said that the "DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles, however the reliability will be low."

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We've heard this before: North Korea has the weapons but they don't work well. This is pretty much the primary narrative about the country's capabilities at this point. It's negative enough so as not to scare the citizens but not so dismissive that the Pentagon would look like they're lying if (God forbid) a missile did make it over the Pacific.

But what Lamborn quoted was an internal document. A Pentagon spokesman stepped forward soon after the hearing with the au contraire rebuttal to what was in the military document just a few weeks before. "It would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced in the passage," Pentagon spokesman George Little said. Oh so we're safe? Not exactly. Little is basically just dismissing this specific passage. He's not ruling out the possibility that North Korea's developed some kind of nuclear capabilities. If they didn't have any nuclear capabilities, why would they keep carrying out these nuclear tests?

It's easy to dismiss all this as semantics, but it also serves as a sobering reminder that the military either won't tell the American people or simply doesn't know exactly what the North Koreans can or will do. Nobody does, though. Along those lines, Thursday was a refreshing day as well since we saw South Korea begin making an effort to ease the tension with their neighbors to the north. Maybe they should try a little basketball diplomacy. Or may just go with something a little bit more effective. There is a sense of urgency.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.