U.S. Intelligence Agencies Monitor North Korea

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U.S. intelligence agencies are paying close attention to North Korea. That country announced this week that it is preparing to launch a communications satellite. But the satellite would be placed atop a long-range rocket of the same type that could be used to carry a nuclear warhead.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And the U.S. intelligence agencies are paying close attention to North Korea. That country announced this week that it's preparing to launch a communications satellite. That in itself may not sound alarming, but the satellite will be placed atop a long-range rocket of the same type that could be used to carry a nuclear warhead.

NPR's Tom Gjelten is following this story and joins us. Good morning.

TOM GJELTEN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What are you hearing? I mean, would this really be a satellite launch, or would it be a missile test?

GJELTEN: It could well be both, Renee. There's no doubt they'd like to put up a satellite, but to do that they'd need to send it up on a rocket. And that's the real issue here: It would be a missile test either way. As you said, they would use a multi-stage rocket that, in theory, could actually reach parts of Alaska or even parts of Europe. And given that U.S. intelligence agencies now believe North Korea has a nuclear device, the thought of them testing a long-range rocket that could deliver a warhead is worrisome.

MONTAGNE: And what do U.S. intelligence officials know about these launch preparations - of course, aside from what the North Koreans have announced?

GJELTEN: What they know, Renee, comes from satellite pictures of activity observed at the launch site. The missile itself has not yet been seen, according to an intelligence source I spoke to yesterday. Normally, the missile would be assembled there at the launch site. That would take a couple of weeks.

So we know this is not imminent. Analysts will be watching for that missile assembly. They'll also be watching for fuel trucks then to come to the launch site to fuel the rocket. That would be a sign the launch would follow in two or three days. So, as you can imagine, they're keeping their satellites trained on that site pretty closely.

MONTAGNE: And what would the U.S. government do in the event that North Koreans go ahead and launch?

GJELTEN: That's the big question, Renee. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has actually said one option would be to shoot the missile down. That would turn this into a test for U.S. missile defense. Any launch of this kind by the North Koreans, even to put up a satellite, would actually violate a U.N. resolution that bans their ballistic missile activity.

But does that mean we can just shoot it down? The North Koreans' announcement that they intend to put a communications satellite into orbit makes it more difficult, because under those circumstances, it would be pretty controversial to just shoot it down.

I think that one issue here is which way the missile goes. If they shoot it south over the open ocean, that would be one thing. If it goes east in the direction of Japan and over US destroyers that are armed with this missile defense system, I think there'd be a greater chance it would get shot down. But, Renee, in any case, a North Korean missile launch would be a provocative act, and the US shooting it down would heighten tensions more.

MONTAGNE: And we're talking with NPR's Tom Gjelten. And, Tom, earlier this week you reported that the U.S. intelligence agencies now seem to be suggesting that Iran is, in fact, working to develop nuclear weapons. Yesterday, the director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, was up on Capitol Hill. What did he say about Iran?

GJELTEN: Renee, this was the official threat assessment. And when Blair delivered that assessment to the Senate two weeks ago, he said flatly that Iran is engaged in, quote, "the dogged development of a nuclear weapon." Well, that caused quite a bit of a stir because the last National Intelligence Estimate on Iran in December 2007 actually concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program, or at least a major part of that program.

So it sounded like Blair was disavowing that estimate. That's big news. But guess what? When he delivered that testimony yesterday, the sentence was changed, the wording was changed. Listen to what he said this time.

Admiral DENNIS BLAIR (Director, National Intelligence): A more assertive regional Iranian foreign policy, coupled with dogged development of two of the major components of a nuclear weapons capability alarms most of the governments from Riyadh to Tel Aviv.

GJELTEN: Two of the major components, Renee. There are actually three components to a nuclear weapons program: the nuclear material, the warhead and the missile to deliver it. So the revised official finding now is that Iran is only developing two of those three: the material and the missile, not the warhead necessarily.

And, you know, phrased that way, it's essentially the same conclusion as the earlier estimate. As it turns out, the intelligence folks, it seems, are not quite ready to say flatly that Iran is developing a nuclear bomb.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR intelligence correspondent Tom Gjelten.

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