...just keep trying. That appears to be the mantra for North Korea's long-range ballistic missile program, according to senior U.S. intelligence officials.
Testifying before Congress yesterday, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reported that Pyongyang is still working on a missile capable of hitting the United States, despite last year's spectacular failure of its Tapeo Dong 2 (TD-2) system. Lieutenant General Michael Maples indicated North Korea is continuing development of the TD-2, and will eventually perfect the long-range missile, which could target portions of the CONUS.
"I believe they have the technical capability, as we saw by the Taepodong, but they have not successfully tested it yet," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Asked how long before North Korea would have a missile capable of reaching the United States, he said, "I would probably estimate it's not a matter of years."
General Maples also indicated that Pyongyang's continued proliferation of ballistic systems remains a concern, as evidenced by its development of new intermediate and short-range systems. The intermediate range missile, the BM-25, has already been sold to Iran, and the short-range missile could attract a number of potential customers, including Iran and Syria.
Similar concerns about North Korea were also voiced by the nation's Director of National Intelligence, retired Admiral Mike McConnell, who also testified before the committee yesterday. McConnell said that U.S. intelligence agencies are unable to verify Pyongyang's compliance with the recent nuclear agreement "at the level we'd like." Earlier this month, North Korea agreed to begin "disabling" its nuclear program, in exchange for energy and economic assistance.
Of course, monitoring North Korean compliance is an essential element of implementing and sustaining the agreement. After the 1994 "Agreed To Framework," North Korea simply took its nuclear program underground, conducting research and development work that went undetected for years, and culminated in last year's marginally successful nuclear test.
On a related note, Admiral McConnell testified that he expects Iran to develop nuclear weapons by 2015, and will be able to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile at that time. His comments suggest that the U.S. intelligence community is still taking the "long road" view of Iran's nuclear program, assessing that Tehran may be a decade away from getting the bomb. But, as we've wondered before, what happens to that timeline if North Korea "officially" gives up its nuclear program? There's a pretty good chance that those "unemployed" DPRK scientists and engineers could find their way to Iran, and accelerate that country's nuclear development efforts.
The 2015 estimate represents a "worst case" scenario for Iran, and a "best case" scenario for us. With outside assistance--and assuming no military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities--it is quite plausible that Iran could gain a nuclear capability much earlier, say in the 2009-2011 timeframe. It's a bit ironic that senior intelligence officers are forecasting an Iranian bomb in the middle of the next decade, while (at the same time) Washington is abuzz about potential U.S. strikes on Tehran's nuclear facilities, and movement of a second carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf Region. Still skitterish over pre-war Iraq intelligence assessments, intelligence chiefs are hesitant to go out on a limb in predicting Iran's nuclear capabilities. But obviously, that 2015 assessment isn't carved in stone, and operational planning and activities aren't bound by that estimate.