The Cable

White House Shoots Down North Korea’s Claim It Can Miniaturize Nukes

The White House shot down a claim by North Korea on Wednesday that the rogue state has developed the technology to miniaturize nuclear weapons, an important step in developing a nuclear missile.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) applauds during a official ceremony at a stadium in Pyongyang on April 14, 2012.  North Korean will mark the 100th birthday of their leader Kim Il-Sung on April 15. AFP PHOTO/PEDRO UGARTE (Photo credit should read PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) applauds during a official ceremony at a stadium in Pyongyang on April 14, 2012. North Korean will mark the 100th birthday of their leader Kim Il-Sung on April 15. AFP PHOTO/PEDRO UGARTE (Photo credit should read PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

The White House rejected a claim by North Korea on Wednesday that the rogue state has developed the technology to miniaturize nuclear weapons, an important step in developing a nuclear missile.

“Our assessment of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities has not changed,” White House spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in an e-mail to Foreign Policy. “We do not think that they have that capacity.”

The Hermit Kingdom, one of the most closed and secretive regimes in the world, regularly issues bombastic claims about its military capabilities and intentions to incinerate Washington in a mushroom cloud of doom. But the latest claim, issued by Pyongyang’s National Defense Commission, made headlines around the world as it came on the heels of Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to the region, and heightened fears that Kim Jong Un’s regime has been working to accomplish the technical feat of miniaturization, an important precursor to fastening a nuclear warhead to the tip of a ballistic missile.

“Our means of nuclear strikes have been already miniaturized and diversified a long time ago,” the National Defense Commission said in a statement that did not include evidence.

Although the White House is skeptical, some senior U.S. officials have given credence to Pyongyang’s claims in recent months. In October, U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said he believed North Korea could in fact miniaturize a nuclear bomb.

On Wednesday, North Korea also cancelled a visit by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon after he blamed the regime for aggravating regional tensions.

Despite the White House’s downplaying of Pyongyang’s claims, Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he takes North Korea’s statement “very seriously.”

“We think the timing here has a lot to do with Secretary Kerry’s visit to the region,” Cardin (D-Md.) told a group of reporters, responding to a question by FP. “We know that there’s been engagement about increasing the isolation of North Korea if they continue down this path, and we encourage that.”

Over the weekend, Kerry traveled to Beijing and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. On  Sunday and Monday he traveled to Seoul and met with South Korean President Park Geun-hye to discuss a “range of global, regional and bilateral issues.”

Cardin, who previously served as the chairman of the East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, highlighted the importance of bringing international pressure to bear on North Korea as it continues to violate U.N. Security Council resolutions on nonproliferation. “China has to be a major partner in those types of activities,” he said. “We’ve seen sanctions imposed by the international community against North Korea, and we need to talk about whether we’re going to strengthen those if North Korea turns down this path.”

Even as Ventrell, the White House spokesman, downplayed the likelihood that North Korea had mastered the miniaturization process, he acknowledged its advances in ballistic missile technology.

“They are working on developing a number of long range missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, that could eventually threaten our allies and the homeland,” he said. “That is why the administration is working to improve regional and homeland missile defenses, and continuing to work with the other members of the six-party talks to bring North Korea back into compliance with its nonproliferation commitments.”

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John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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