KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
And now we'll talk about North Korea where last week the country once again appears to have attempted a ballistic missile launch. And once again, the launch appears to have failed. But U.S. intelligence officials say Pyongyang is learning from its mistakes and that it will likely be capable of hitting the continental United States with a nuclear armed missile within the next five years. NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly reports.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Picture this scene - a cavernous, dimly lit auditorium crawling with CIA officers and analysts - the occasion, a rare, public CIA conference here in Washington last month. On the stage sat three former and current officials reclining in tan leather armchairs and fielding this question. Name a global flashpoint you're looking to with concern.
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DENNIS WILDER: North Korea and how the United States and China deal with that situation.
KELLY: Now, maybe that's a predictable answer from the Asia guy onstage. That was Dennis Wilder, who has dealt with North Korea from posts at the CIA and the National Security Council.
But listen next to Jami Miscik, who once served as the CIA's most senior analyst. Today she co-chairs the President's Intelligence Advisory Board. Last week at Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit, she made the case that none of us are paying enough attention to North Korea.
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JAMI MISCIK: The president elect is going to face a problem with North Korea that none of his predecessors or her predecessors have faced. It is well on the way to becoming not just a nuclear power but a power able to deliver a nuclear missile.
KELLY: Able to deliver a nuclear missile - that's the key. Elbridge Colby is a former Pentagon official now at the Center for a New American Security. He says it's worrying enough that an unpredictable, isolated regime like North Korea has nuclear weapons.
ELBRIDGE COLBY: But it's a whole 'nother level when you get a ballistic missile that can travel very fast and is hard to intercept and can reach not just South Korea and Japan but the United States itself. And that's the real game changer.
KELLY: Should we take heart from the fact that their tests keep failing, both nuclear tests and missile tests?
COLBY: Not really because, you know, it depends on what you're trying to do. You may be trying to test the edges of your capability, and you can still also get data from your failed tests.
KELLY: Because the more North Korea tests, the more it learns. Dennis Wilder, the former CIA officer we met in that dark auditorium - he points to North Korea's five nuclear tests so far, including one in September, and its 23 missile tests, including last week.
WILDER: What we're seeing now is an unprecedented level of activity.
KELLY: And that may not even be the worst news. In an interview in his office at Georgetown where he's now a professor, Wilder noted that today, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is believed to have enough fissile material for somewhere between 10 and 20 nuclear weapons.
WILDER: A new RAND study says he could have 50 by 2020. That is scary.
KELLY: Because North Korea would have surplus nukes. It could export.
WILDER: I was in the Bush White House when we found out that the North Koreans had sent nuclear technology to Syria. It was a shock to the entire world. I don't want to have the same lack of imagination on this issue.
KELLY: North Korea is broke. Exporting nukes would bring in desperately needed cash - so what to do? Wilder argues the only path forward is persuading China to use its leverage. He also jokes that North Korea is the land of lousy policy options.
In New York, The U.N. Security Council is drafting new sanctions in light of this latest nuclear test. From Pyongyang, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already shot back, saying, quote, "it is a complete miscalculation to think that sanctions or pressure can have any effect on us." Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
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