Obama Voices Doubts on North Korean Nuclear Warhead

WASHINGTON — President Obama said in an interview broadcast Tuesday that he did not believe that North Korea yet had the ability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon to fit atop a missile, and he said nothing would shake him from a strategy of refusing to “reward” the kind of provocative behavior exhibited by Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader.
Mr. Obama, speaking in an interview with Savannah Guthrie of NBC News that was recorded just before the bombings in Boston on Monday, implicitly dismissed a conclusion by the Defense Intelligence Agency, which said in a report last month that it had “moderate confidence" that the North already had mastered the technology of building a weapon that could fit into a missile warhead. After the conclusion became public at a Congressional hearing on Thursday, the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., issued a statement saying that the agency's position did not reflect the consensus view of the 15 other intelligence agencies.
Mr. Obama agreed. “You know, based on our current intelligence assessments, we do not think that they have that capacity” to fit a warhead atop a missile, he said. “But, you know, we have to make sure that we are dealing with every contingency out there. And that’s why I’ve repositioned missile defense systems to guard against any miscalculation on their part.”
For the first time, Mr. Obama spoke about Mr. Kim, the North’s young leader, whose motivations have been scrutinized since the latest escalation of threats and tensions began.
“I’m not a psychiatrist," Mr. Obama said, suggesting that he had to judge Mr. Kim by his actions rather than his words. But he added: “This is the same kind of pattern that we saw his father engage in, and his grandfather before that. Since I came into office, the one thing I was clear about was, we’re not going to reward this kind of provocative behavior. You don’t get to bang your — your spoon on the table and somehow you get your way.”
He also hinted at the administration’s strategy, which seems to be one of letting Mr. Kim blow off steam before trying anew to engage with him. Mr. Obama said he would “anticipate" that “North Korea will probably make more provocative moves over the next several weeks, but our hope is we can contain it and we can move into a different phase, in which they try to work through diplomatically some of these issues so they can get back on a path where they’re actually feeding their people.”
Mr. Obama’s statement seemed to hint at a dialogue, though he did not say under what conditions it could take place, and he did not repeat a promise he made during his first presidential campaign, in 2008, to engage with the North unconditionally. It may make little difference: On Tuesday, the North Korean Foreign Ministry rejected recent American overtures.
“This is nothing but a crafty ploy,” a ministry spokesman said in the North’s first reaction to a visit to the region by Secretary of State John Kerry over the weekend.
In a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, the spokesman said genuine dialogue would be possible only when North Korea “has acquired nuclear deterrent enough to defuse the U.S. threat of nuclear war unless the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy and nuclear threat and blackmail.”
If the statement can be taken at face value, it would suggest that the North is not willing to engage in talks on the basis Mr. Kerry discussed when he was in the region: with an underlying agreement that the goal was to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. That was the basis of talks in 1994, and again in 2005 and 2008. But Mr. Kim has rejected that approach in recent months, saying that the world must simply accept the North as an established nuclear power. The United States has refused to do so, insisting that it will never accept the North as a nuclear weapons state.

Choe Sang-Hun contributed reporting from Seoul, South Korea.