WASHINGTON -- North Korea has an untested ballistic missile capable of reaching the western United States, top U.S. intelligence officials told Congress Wednesday. 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 could lead to punishing sanctions, which North Korea has said it would consider an act of war.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said his 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 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 J. Tenet, who joined Jacoby before the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday, 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.
Tenet also told the senators that "it's a very good judgment" that North Korea has already built one or two nuclear weapons.
At issue in the current standoff is North Korea's ability to make more. It has taken steps to restart its plutonium-production line at a mothballed reactor, and U.S. intelligence officials say it is also pursuing a uranium-enrichment program that would allow for additional nuclear weapons. It also expelled U.N. inspectors who were monitoring the shut-down reactor.
In its resolution that sent the standoff to the Security Council, the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors said North Korea had not met its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and other accords.
Because the North has expelled U.N. inspectors, the agency "remains unable to verify that there has been no diversion of nuclear material" for weapons use, it said.
The head of North Korea's diplomatic representation in Germany, Pak Hyon Bo, told the German daily Financial Times Deutschland on Wednesday that his country will not respect any resolutions or suggestions by the U.N. Security Council.
Fleischer praised the IAEA action, calling it a "clear indication that the international community will not accept North Korea's nuclear program." He said the conflict pits North Korea against the world, not just the United States.
Because of the North's belligerent threats of war, it was unclear whether the Security Council would impose sanctions, especially in light of objections from Russia and China, permanent council members with veto power.
Russia and Cuba refused to endorse the IAEA action.
The U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, John Bolton, said the IAEA action demonstrates "the international concern over North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons" in contrast to Pyongyang's insistence that the issue is merely a Washington-Pyongyang matter.
He said in a telephone interview the Security Council can consider a variety of next steps that would further demonstrate the "political gravity" of situation.
He said it is difficult to see how North Korea can be persuaded to dismantle its nuclear weapons program without the help of China, which provides vast aid to North Korea. Secretary of State Colin Powell told a Senate committee Wednesday the United States is pressing China do to more.