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May 28, 2009
Notes from the Pentagon

North Korean test
U.S. intelligence analysts are continuing to sift through seismic, electronic and other intelligence data gathered from around the world to determine the size of the underground nuclear blast carried out by North Korea on Monday at the test facility near Kilju in the northern part of the country.

Preliminary indications show that Pyongyang achieved a much larger blast than its first test in 2006, which was considered partially successful because it produced an explosion of about 0.5 kilotons.

Preliminary indications are that the latest test produced a yield of 4 kilotons to 5 kilotons, nearly 10 times bigger than 2006. Final estimates are not expected for several more days, said a U.S. official familiar with reports of the test. A kiloton is the equivalent of 1,000 tons of TNT.

The official challenged the first non-North Korean report on the size of the blast that appeared in the Russian press. That quoted Defense Ministry sources as stating that the yield was between 10 and 20 kilotons - or about the size of the U.S. atomic bombs dropped on Japan that ended World War II. "That's a bit high," the U.S. official said, adding that the final analysis is still under way.

The yield estimate is being done on a crash basis by specialists at the Energy Department and its nuclear laboratories, which are responsible for monitoring foreign nuclear programs. Other analysts involved are from the National Intelligence Council, under Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair, and analysts at the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and other agencies.

If the 4-to-5-kiloton yield is confirmed, it is expected to complicate efforts by the United States and other nations to deny North Korea the status it seeks as a declared nuclear power.

The North Korean test comes as the Obama administration reviews policy on how to deal with the reclusive regime in North Korea, including possible plans for a new diplomatic initiative with Pyongyang that would include more direct, one-on-one negotiations as well as seeking to revive the stalled and now all-but-dead six-nation nuclear talks.

It also is the first big test of the Obama administration's policy on nuclear non-proliferation, which is being worked out among key foreign-policy and defense agencies.

Observers say the administration is expected to rely more on combined international condemnation of North Korea because further sanctions on North Korea are not expected to be backed by China and Russia.

Flournoy on military supremacy
Michele A. Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, recently outlined her views on U.S. military supremacy. The key defense policymaker told reporters May 20 that she is not abandoning the idea of keeping the U.S. military the most powerful in the world, but she added the caveat that she favors balancing U.S. power with that of other nations.

Ms. Flournoy is leading the latest four-year strategic assessment of U.S. forces, called the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which is being done on an expedited basis and will set the Obama administration defense agenda by early next year.

Asked if U.S. superpower status should be preserved or whether U.S. power should be balanced with that of other countries such as Russia, China and India, Ms. Flournoy said: "I think the fact that America's position in the world is fairly unique, it is a fact. But I think this administration, when you look at the full range of security challenges we face - whether it's terrorism, proliferation, economic security issues, climate change, pick your challenge - there's not a single one that the United States alone can deal with effectively."

Instead, "coalitions and partners" are needed to deal with the challenges, she said, adding that the U.S. is uniquely positioned to play a leadership role in alliances and coalitions for dealing with problems.

"At the same time, I do think the world is becoming a more multipolar place, and you have the rise of other powers, and you have the rise of important regional players who will play leadership roles in their regions," she said. "So what this is pushing us to is, again, a more pragmatic strategy that's focused on building partnerships to deal with specific challenges around the world."

Pressed on whether the United States should continue to have the dominant military, Ms. Flournoy said that "as a nation with both a global interest and a global leadership role to play, yes, I do believe that our military needs to remain second to none. But what that means is changing. This is why we're conducting the QDR."

Ms. Flournoy said the Pentagon is in the early stages of the review, based on focus areas and guidance from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. They include three main areas on how to improve capabilities for waging irregular warfare, countering arms proliferation and "dealing with high-end asymmetric threats," a phrase a U.S. defense official has said is code for China.

Test reaction
North Korea's nuclear test has triggered several groups to advocate new policies for dealing with the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue states.

Advocates for missile defenses say the underground blast highlights the need to bolster U.S. missile defenses against a future long-range missile launched by Pyongyang with a nuclear warhead, while arms-control proponents say the Obama administration needs more vigorous arms-control diplomacy.

Air-power advocates are calling on the Pentagon to challenge the congressional ban on exporting the new F-22 fighter bomber to Japan, something the George W. Bush administration refused to do over concerns it would upset China.

Riki Ellison, chairman and founder of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said the North Korean test along with recent medium- and long-range missile tests shows the need to bolster U.S. missile defenses.

Mr. Ellison criticized the Pentagon's planned cut of $1.2 billion for missile defenses and said plans to cap the current long-range interceptor force at 30 missiles were wrong. The planned reduction is "32 percent of what was required six months ago [and] specifically lessens the protection of the United States' public and homeland from a North Korea ballistic missile with a nuclear weapon, making our nation and people less safe," he said.

Mr. Ellison stated that Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O'Reilly, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told a House hearing last week that the threat from ballistic missiles has "increased significantly."

Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said in a statement that the test "underscores that current policies designed to curb [North Korea's] nuclear-weapons program have failed to achieve their potential and that a new and more energetic diplomatic approach is needed, and fast."

Former Ambassador Robert Gallucci, also with the Arms Control Association's Board of Directors, said the test showed that "a dangerous situation has been allowed to get worse."

"It is essential that top U.S. diplomats clarify Washington's willingness to negotiate directly with their North Korean counterparts in the context of the six-party process or other fora to implement the September 2005 Joint Framework Agreement for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," Mr. Gallucci said, referring to the six-nation document.

Fighter pilot and former Pentagon official Edward T. Timperlake said the North Korean nuclear test should trigger the immediate sale to Japan of the F-22, the stealth fighter that is considered the military's top-of-the-line jet.

Mr. Timperlake, until recently the director of technology assessment for the Pentagon's International Technology Security directorate, said China's support for North Korea and its failure to use oil sales to Pyongyang for leverage against the test raises questions about the U.S. policy of giving Beijing the lead in nuclear talks. He said China's role with North Korea "is part of the problem and not the solution," adding that the Chinese response to the test was "tepid."

"The key to a free Pacific is Japan, and it is a quiet but well-known fact they can start to build their own nuke deterrence force almost overnight if they wish," Mr. Timperlake said.

Selling an export version of the F-22 to Japan "sends a very powerful signal to all - China, North Korea and Japan - that bad actions can have real and direct U.S. consequences."

A statement quoting Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said that China "resolutely opposed" the test.

"The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, opposition to nuclear proliferation and maintenance of peace and stability in Northeast Asia is the consistent and unswerving stance of the Chinese government," the statement said, according to Associated Press.

  • Bill Gertz covers national security affairs. He can be reached at 202/636-3274, or at

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