North Korea poses ‘existential’ threat, Coats informs Congress
WASHINGTON — North Korea’s nuclear weapons program poses a potentially “existential” threat to the United States, the national intelligence director said in a bleak appraisal to Congress on Thursday. He wouldn’t say how close Pyongyang is to being able to strike the U.S. mainland.
Dan Coats said the unprecedented nuclear and missile testing last year indicates leader Kim Jong Un is intent on proving North Korea’s capability. The North’s public claims suggest it could conduct its first flight of an intercontinental ballistic missile this year.
And Pyongyang’s statements that it needs nuclear weapons to survive suggest Kim “does not intend to negotiate them away at any price,” Coats added at a Senate intelligence hearing on worldwide threats.
The heads of six U.S. intelligence agencies reviewed a slew of national security challenges facing the United States, warning about deteriorating security in Afghanistan, China’s rising challenge, and Russian and other countries’ use of cyberspace to target the U.S.
Senators sought an assessment of when North Korea would be able to strike the U.S. with a nuclear weapon. Coats declined to provide such details in an open hearing. Coats, however, described the threat as potentially “existential.” North Korea’s missile tests in 2016, including a space launch that put a satellite into orbit, have shortened its pathway toward a reliable intercontinental missile that could strike America, he said, and the North has expanded the size and sophistication of its ballistic missile forces.
Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s director, said North Korea was at the same time developing a nuclear device and processing fissile material, aiming to miniaturize a device for a warhead to mount on such missiles.
“They are on that path and they are committed to doing that,” he said.
Intelligence chiefs gave a sombre appraisal of security in Afghanistan. Coats said the situation will deteriorate and the Taliban will make gains, especially in rural areas. The performance of Afghan national security forces will worsen due to weak military leadership, desertions and combat casualties, he predicted.
If left unchecked, Stewart added, the “stalemate” will deteriorate in the Taliban’s favour, risking “all the gains” from U.S.-backed efforts there.