SEOUL, South Korea — Secretary of State John Kerry warned North Korea's young leader Friday that his country would lose any military showdown with the United States, and sought to downplay a U.S. intelligence report that North Korea is now capable of delivering a nuclear-armed missile.
The dual signals from Kerry were part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to force North Korea to back away from its increasingly bellicose rhetoric, while also assuaging the concerns of allies and the American public.
Speaking in the South Korean capital, Kerry pledged strong support for that country as well as Japan against threats from Pyongyang, saying that its leader, Kim Jong Un, "needs to understand, as I think he probably does, what the outcome of the conflict would be."
The tone of that reference to U.S. military power seemed designed to reinforce a message the administration has also delivered more explicitly in recent weeks by repositioning U.S. missile defense equipment and sending nuclear-capable stealth bombers on missions over South Korea.
At the same time, Kerry attempted to tamp down the significance of a recent U.S. intelligence report that concluded that North Korea is now capable of making a nuclear warhead that can be mounted on a ballistic missile and fired.
If true, it would mean that North Korea has crossed what many regard as the most difficult technical barrier to being able to launch a nuclear attack, even if limited in scope and range.
Kerry said that "it is inaccurate to suggest" that Pyongyang "has fully tested, developed or demonstrated capabilities that are articulated in that report."
Kerry was referring to an assessment secretly circulated last month by the Defense Intelligence Agency, a spy service that gathers intelligence and produces analysis for the Pentagon. The finding was made public Thursday when it was mentioned by Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., during a hearing on Capitol Hill.
North Korea has previously tested stationary nuclear devices, as well as missiles with ranges that could reach parts of the United States. But it has not shown that it has mastered the technical challenge of making a nuclear warhead small and strong enough to be carried by missile to a distant target before detonating.
But Kerry's use of the phrase "fully tested, developed or demonstrated," seemed to allow for some ambiguity on the question of whether North Korea is capable of making a nuclear warhead, even if it hasn't exhibited that technology to the outside world.
South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok also sought to downplay the significance of the new report in remarks he made during an appearance with Kerry. "Our military's assessment is that North Korea has not yet miniaturized" a nuclear device, Min Seok said.
Concern over North Korea's nuclear capability has been heightened by the menacing behavior of North Korea's young and relatively untested leader. Last month, the North Korean news agency released pictures of Kim in a "war room" where a large map was marked with lines meant to depict missile flight paths to major cities in the United States.