North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a “serious threat” to the U.S. and its allies in Asia, according to U.S. intelligence agencies in an unclassified worldwide threat assessment.
Presenting the report to the Senate intelligence committee yesterday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said he is “very concerned” about the actions of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un and the “very belligerent” rhetoric that has been emanating from his regime.
His testimony comes as tensions on the Korean peninsula are at the highest since at least 2010, with North Korea threatening nuclear strikes and withdrawing from the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War.
“The rhetoric, while it is propaganda laced, is also an indicator of their attitude and perhaps their intent,” Clapper told the committee. “So, for my part, I am very concerned about what they might do.” The North is capable of initiating “a provocative action against the South,” he said.
North Korea is combat-ready with strategic rockets and “diversified surgical nuclear strike mechanisms,” the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper said March 11.
There’s no evidence yet that Kim’s regime has nuclear-armed ballistic missiles to target the U.S. and South Korea. There’s also no public information on whether the North has been able to covertly advance beyond testing to weaponizing a nuclear device.
North Korea does have a large, non-nuclear force “held in check by the more powerful South Korean-U.S. military alliance,” according to the intelligence agencies’ report. “Nevertheless, the North Korean military is well postured to conduct limited attacks with little or no warning, such as the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship and the artillery bombardment of a South Korean island along the Northern Limit Line.”
Earlier this week, U.S. National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon called North Korea’s threats of preemptive nuclear strikes “hyperbolic.”
“North Korea’s claims may be hyperbolic -- but as to the policy of the United States, there should be no doubt. We will draw upon the full range of our capabilities to protect against, and to respond to, the threat posed to us and to our allies by North Korea,” he said in a March 11 speech to the Asia Society in New York.
President Barack Obama’s administration, while open to talks with North Korea, “will not play the game of accepting empty promises or yielding to threats,” Donilon said.
New South Korean President Park Geun Hye plans to meet with Obama at the White House in early May to discuss the North Korean threat and mark the 60th anniversary of the alliance, Park spokesman Yoon Chang Jung told reporters yesterday in Seoul.
The Kim regime successfully fired a long-range rocket in December and detonated underground what it described as a “smaller and light” nuclear device two months later, both in defiance of the United Nations Security Council.
Satellite images from as recently as early this month show no preparations under way for a rocket launch in the next month at either of two test facilities, according to research published yesterday by the 38 North website of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
North Korea’s rocket tests show its “commitment to develop long-range missile technology that could pose a direct threat to the United States,” according to the U.S. intelligence agencies’ report.
The U.S. intelligence community has long assessed that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are for “deterrence, international prestige, and coercive diplomacy,” according to the report.
“Although we assess with low confidence that the North would only attempt to use nuclear weapons against U.S. forces or allies to preserve the Kim regime, we do not know what would constitute, from the North’s perspective, crossing that threshold,” according to the report.
South Korea’s won closed near a four-month low against the dollar on rising tensions. The benchmark Kospi Index fell 0.5 percent to 1,933.34.
North Korea may be holding as many as 200,000 political prisoners in camps with enforced labor where conditions are “dire” and “horrid,” Marzuki Darusman, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human-rights situation in North Korea, told reporters in Geneva yesterday. “These camps have the purpose of driving the people detained there toward a slow death,” he said.
Those and other actions by the regime, including torture and mass starvation, may constitute crimes against humanity, Darusman told the UN Human Rights Council. He urged the UN to create an independent commission to place responsibility for the abuses.
While North Korea has cut the border phone line before, its technological advances have increased the possibility of more provocations, George A. Lopez, a former UN sanctions investigator on North Korea, said in an e-mail.
“What I worry most about is that in the past the bluster from DPRK was not really matched by much capability,” said Lopez, a professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “Now DPRK defiance of sanctions can be played out in a big way via a new nuke test or missile launch or both.”
DPRK stands for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
During a visit to a front-line artillery post on North Korea’s Wolnae Islet, Kim expressed confidence in the unit’s ability to turn South Korea’s Baengnyeong Island into “a sea of fire,” the official Korean Central News Agency said.
The location is significant because 46 South Korean seamen died in March 2010 after the naval ship Cheonan sank in waters near Baengnyeong, about 210 kilometers (130 miles) northwest of Seoul. While an international panel said the North torpedoed the ship, the Pyongyang government denied any involvement.
North Korea will stage a mass military drill on its eastern coast soon, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said at a briefing in Seoul yesterday. The South advises its people not to get nervous, he said.
South Korea and the U.S. on March 11 began their “Key Resolve” exercise.