N. Korean missile capable of hitting U.S.

Published February 13, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) - North Korea has an untested ballistic missile capable of reaching the western United States, top U.S. intelligence officials confirmed yesterday. In Vienna, the U.N. nuclear agency declared North Korea in violation for its nuclear program and reported the country to the Security Council.

The U.N. move, which sends the dispute to the Security Council for consideration, could lead to punishing sanctions which North Korea has said it would consider an act of war.

International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, meanwhile, said in Vienna the agency would continue to press for a peaceful solution, but he said months of intransigence by North Korea's communist regime had left the U.N. nuclear watchdog no choice.

"The current situation sets a dangerous precedent," ElBaradei said. He said North Korea was only a "month or two" from producing "a significant amount of plutonium" that could be used to make weapons, now that IAEA inspectors no longer controlled the country's nuclear programs.

In Washington, U.S. intelligence officials told Congress that North Korea has a ballistic missile capable of hitting the western United States and possibly targets farther inland.

The weapon is an untested, three-stage version of its Taepo Dong 2 missile, Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told reporters. CIA Director George Tenet, who joined Jacoby before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, acknowledged that North Korea has a missile that can at least reach the West Coast.

Their statements seemed to be the strongest from U.S. officials saying that Pyongyang can strike the United States with a long-range nuclear missile launched from the interior of North Korea.

However, U.S. intelligence officials said later North Korea has demonstrated no new missile capabilities in the last year. The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Tenet and Jacoby's statements were based on the same information that led U.S. intelligence to conclude a few years ago that North Korea was close to being able to flight-test a three-stage Taepo Dong 2.

Without flight-testing, the reliability of such a missile fired in anger is questionable. For several years, North Korea has held to a voluntary moratorium on flight tests of its long-range missiles, although American officials say the country may renew them at any time.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer sought to play down the statements, saying they reflected old intelligence. He said, "This old news is why it's important to proceed with deployment of missile defense and also why the president is focused on multilateral diplomatic talks to deal with North Korea."

Some Democratic senators, however, criticized the Bush administration's handling of the North Korean standoff.

"It seems to me that's a threat that's as imminent, or perhaps more so, directly to the United States than is Iraq," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.