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WASHINGTON: The director of the CIA says he is worried that North Korea could have a nuclear missile capable of striking the US “in a matter of a handful of months”. Mike Pompeo, speaking to BBC News a year into his tenure, said that his intelligence agency regularly discusses the threat from Pyongyang and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
“We talk about him having the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States in a matter of a handful of months,” Pompeo said, speaking in CIA headquarters in Virginia. “Our task is to have provided the intelligence to the President of the United States that will deliver to him a set of options that continue to take down that risk by non-diplomatic means,” he said.
Pompeo recognised that the use of force against North Korea could lead to a devastating loss of life in the region, which is home to two key US allies, Japan and South Korea.
They are “mindful” of those consequences, he said, and said that “many things were possible” when it comes to removing Kim or otherwise limiting his ability to launch a nuclear weapon at the US.
President Donald Trump has overseen an escalation in combative rhetoric with Pyongyang in his first year in office, which has included personal barbs exchanged between the two men.
Trump has promised “fire and fury” if North Korea does not curb its nuclear ambitions. Meanwhile, Kim called the American President “a rogue” and a “dotard” in an unprecedented letter signed by the North Korean leader himself.
Pompeo says that Trump’s North Korea language — delivered frequently on Twitter — is not landing on deaf ears in Pyongyang. “When you see this language that the President chooses to use, there are many audiences for it… and I assure you Kim Jong-un understands the message that America is serious,” he said.
As the rhetoric heated up, North Korea also conducted several missile tests that have worried the West and increased tensions. The country tested at least 20 ballistic missiles in 2017, including at least three intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
The international community has also responded by ratcheting up financial sanctions against North Korea that have included restrictions on banking interactions between the country and other countries — including China — and restrictions on fuel imports.
Those sanctions preceded a reduction in winter military demonstrations conducted by North Korea, according to US officials. The manoeuvres, which are generally conducted between December and March, had a late start this year, and were less extensive than were seen in recent years.
“Where this will have an effect is on ground-force readiness,” Joseph S Bermudez Jr, a military analyst on a North Korean affairs website run by John Hopkins University’s US-Korea Institute, told the Wall Street Journal. “Military units have to train to maintain their proficiency.”
Military analysts have said that North Korea has not vastly reduced its military capabilities this year and note that Kim has asked his generals to ramp up their production of weapons systems that could be used to fight against an aggressive west.
In a New Years address, Kim instructed his generals to “mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles”. At the same time, North Korea has avoided discussing its nuclear program during talks with South Korean officials, instead insisting that they discuss Pyongyang’s participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea instead.
North Korea recently cancelled a “joint cultural performance” with South Korea, saying that Seoul had encouraged “insulting” media portrayals of the North. The two countries had agreed previously to march under the same flag during the opening ceremony for the Olympics.
Pompeo also touched on Russian meddling in American elections and said that he had not seen a decrease in Russian attempts to influence US voting systems. He said his agency is not concerned that Russia will be particularly successful if it attempts to subvert the 2018 midterms later this year.
“I have every expectation that they will continue to try and do that, but I’m confident that America will be able to have a free and fair election [and] that we will push back in a way that is sufficiently robust that the impact they have on our election won’t be great,” he said.