CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Tuesday that the US intelligence community still considers North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to be a “rational actor” but that assessment does not mean he is only developing nuclear weapons as a means to preserve his regime.
“We do believe he would use these tool sets beyond self-preservation,” Pompeo said at the the American Enterprise Institute, adding that Kim is likely prepared to use both nuclear and conventional military forces for “coercive” purposes with the intent of reunifying the Korean peninsula under his rule.
While the CIA has long highlighted North Korea’s rapid improvements in the capacity and rate of its intercontinental ballistic missile tests, Pompeo emphasized that Pyongyang’s progress should be measured by reliability rather than in timelines.
“Kim Jong Un will not rest with one single successful test” that demonstrates he has the ability to hit a US city with a long-range nuclear weapon, Pompeo said.
“His next move would be to develop an arsenal” or the capacity to deliver missiles from multiple firing points simultaneously, he added, noting it is “our mission is to make the day that he can do that as far off as possible.”
Pompeo declined to answer whether the US could conduct a limited military strike on North Korea without provoking a full-scale conflict, but did say that US intelligence and military agencies continue to prepare a series of options for President Donald Trump should diplomacy fail to achieve the stated goal of denuclearization.
The White House has long maintained that all options are on the table when it comes to dealing with North Korea and most of Trump’s top national security advisers have said that military options should be reserved pending an imminent threat to the US or allies.
But Trump’s provocative rhetoric and suggestions that the administration could be considering a “preventative war” have raised concerns that he may be more willing to engage in a conflict on the Korean peninsula than past presidents.
Asked if the US would be willing to live in a world where North Korea could destroy New York with the push of a button, Pompeo said that decision is ultimately up to the President but stressed that Trump has been unambiguous on that point.
The message may not be so clear to Pyongyang though, as Pompeo said US spies are concerned that Kim may be receiving inaccurate intelligence from his senior advisers about how willing the US is to launch a military strike should diplomacy fail.
“It is not a healthy thing to be a senior leader and bring bad news to Kim Jong Un,” Pompeo said.
“Tell someone you are going to do that and then try to get a life insurance policy,” he added, referencing Kim’s history of executing top officials and his even own relatives.
While Pompeo’s remarks elicited laughter from the crowd, they also provided some insight into the CIA’s assessment of what is driving Kim’s decision making.
The US is “taking real world actions we think will make it unmistakable to Kim Jong Un that we are pursuing denuclearization,” Pompeo said.
Determining the point at which North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs reach that stage largely falls to the CIA, a task Pompeo said his agency is well prepared to handle.
“When I came in it (North Korea) clearly hadn’t received the attention and focus for what this administration was going to ask for,” Pompeo said, adding that the agency has made significant progress in developing a global intelligence picture to fill some of the gaps he inherited from previous administrations.
With a more robust global network focused on North Korea, the CIA can now assess the impact of different parts of the administration’s “maximum pressure campaign,” Pompeo said, including the effect, or lack of one, sanctions are having on Pyongyang’s missile program.
“We have officers all around the world working diligently to make sure that we do everything we can to support the US pressure campaign and to tighten the sanctions,” he said.
Pompeo would not discuss the extent sanctions have impacted the rogue regime’s weapons’ programs to date but, ultimately said the CIA is “pretty confident” it can deliver reliable information about North Korea’s evolving nuclear capability and testing capacity.