North Korea can mount nuclear warheads on missiles? Where have we heard that before?

North Korea can mount nuclear warheads on missiles? Where have we heard that before?

Today, the front page of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post announced that North Korea has learned how to make nuclear weapons small enough to be delivered by a ballistic missile, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency. Here’s the LA Times version:

Now tell me if you can tell the difference between this report and a 2005 story in the New York Times:

If you’re having difficulty, that’s because the two are nearly identical. Both articles come from the same source: the Pentagon’s intelligence arm. Both articles cite the same intelligence fear: North Korea has mastered the technology to make nuclear-tipped missiles.

So what gives?

First off, the assessment that North Korea has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles is not the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community. In fact, the nation’s top intelligence official James Clapper hung the DIA out to dry a few hours after its report leaked. “North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile,” he said in a statement.

Secondly, a few things have changed since the DIA first aired warnings of miniature nukes back in 2005 — changes that would make it possible for the threat to be real this time. So the fact that the country’s biggest newspapers are treating the DIA announcement as major news is not a complete boondoggle. Daniel Pinkston, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group specializing in North Korea, highlighted these changes in an e-mail discussion this morning.

“Not much has changed, except North Korea conducted another test and they’ve had more time to work on their program,” he told FP. “The big wild card is we don’t know the extent of foreign technical assistance.”

This intelligence gap is key to understanding the North Korean threat. As Pinkston reasoned, even though the DIA is apparently alone in its assessment, it’s not a very far-fetched idea that a foreign country helped North Korea in the last eight years.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if North Korea received significant foreign technical assistance on warhead design and development,” Pinkston said. “Libya received the CHIC-4 bomb design from Pakistan, which got it from China. If Libya got it, why wouldn’t the North Koreans have it and possibly more?”

For everyone’s sake, let’s just hope Pinkston’s hunch — and the “moderate confidence” of the DIA — is wrong.