North Korea: McCain presses for answers on its nuclear capability

WASHINGATON — Even though fighting on the Korean Peninsula ended in 1953, the North and South remain technically at war, and today, security in the region is “deteriorating dramatically.”

This is according to Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who in a Thursday hearing leveled a striking charge: “In the past 18 months, the North Korean regime has tried twice – that we know of – to ship arms to Iran.”

Throughout the day’s testimony, Senator McCain made an effort to draw out US defense officials on the relationship between the North Korean regime and Iran. He suggested a link between the Middle Eastern foe and North Korea’s decision to use one of its submarines to torpedo the South Korean ship Cheonan in March, resulting in the loss of 46 sailors.

McCain began the hearing by pointing out that the Pentagon’s 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review estimated that if North Korea continues apace, “It could soon have the capability to deliver a nuclear weapon not only to its neighbors, but to the United States.”

But during questioning, McCain’s frustration after appearing not to get the answers he wanted regarding the nuclear threat posed by North Korea led to a testy exchange. He asked Wallace “Chip” Gregson, assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs: “Does North Korea have a reliable nuclear capability?”

“We know that North Korea aspires to a nuclear capability,” Mr. Gregson said.

McCain tried again. “I’ll repeat the question. Does North Korea have a reliable nuclear capability?” To which Gregson responded, “Not to our knowledge.”

“Does North Korea have the capability to deliver a nuclear weapon?” McCain asked one more time. Gregson had the same answer. “Not to our knowledge.”

McCain made little effort to hide his annoyance. “That’s very interesting because published reports indicate that they certainly have a – do they have a nuclear capability then, Secretary Gregson?”

Gregson allowed, “They have demonstrated the ability to detonate nuclear devices.”

McCain changed tacks, asking Gregson whether he had any information that the “North Korean submarine that sank the Cheonan was using Iranian technology.”

Gregson said he preferred to discuss the matter in a classified session. McCain then delved into the threat such an act might pose to the US. “Is it possible that the same act of ‘provocation’ could have … been committed against a United States warship just as easily?”

Gregson demurred. “Certainly the ability to attack from ambush, to conduct a surprise attack is a threat. Yes, it could have been attempted.” However, Gregson added, “I would not characterize it as ‘just as easily.’ ”

With wars on two fronts, the Pentagon has often taken pains to ratchet down rhetoric on both Iran and North Korea. When asked if he has seen “increased acts of provocation on the part of the North Koreans and/or military buildup,” Gen. Walter Sharp, the commander of US forces in Korea, answered, “Senator, not military buildup” and noted that the summer training cycle has been “normal, or maybe slightly below normal.” But, he added, they have fired artillery out in the ocean in an effort to flex their muscle.

“I also don’t like the word provocation,” Sharp said, but firing the artillery rounds is clearly an effort “to demonstrate to the people of South Korea that they have the capability to do things at their will.”

Across town just hours later, in a joint press conference with the French defense minister, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates took a moment to thank his counterpart for “trying to get more countries to adopt more severe sanctions” against Iran.

These United Nations measures, Gates added, appear to hold some promise – much to the surprise of some within the US military. “Our discussion today was really about the fact that the sanctions have ended up being more effective and more severe than perhaps we might have expected.”

But the frustration, both within the halls of the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, remains how little of a window the US has into both regimes. When asked by McCain whether it appears clear that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il’s youngest son will be his successor, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell answered, “Your guess is as good as ours, Senator.”

“Well,” McCain quipped, “that’s an interesting comment on our intelligence-gathering capability.”

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