North Korea is now only "a handful of months" away from being able to hold major U.S. cities at risk, CIA Director Mike Pompeo warned on Tuesday.
According to the CIA's analysis, North Korea is "ever closer to being able to hold America at risk" with its nuclear weapons program. "Our mission is to make the day [they] can do that as far off as possible," Pompeo said during a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. "We are working diligently to make sure that a year from now I can still tell you they are several months away from having that capacity."
In the past year, the world has seen North Korea's nuclear program on display. The regime carried out its sixth and largest nuclear weapons test in September and throughout the year conducted a series of ballistic missile tests, culminating in the successful launch of their longest-range intercontinental ballistic missile to date in November.
North Korea's capacity to conduct these tests more frequently and with greater success has led the CIA to conclude that Kim Jong Un will not be satisfied with a single success, but is seeking a complete nuclear arsenal and multiple ways of delivering missiles to the U.S. mainland.
"The logical next step would be to develop an arsenal of weapons that is not one... showpiece, not something to drive on a parade route on February 8th [the anniversary of the North Korean military], but rather the capacity to deliver from multiple firings of these missiles simultaneously," Pompeo stated. It is that scenario that Donald Trump has directed the intelligence community, the State Department, the Department of Defense and the whole of government to prevent from happening, he said.
At the same time, the U.S. government is doing everything in its power to ensure that the Kim Jong Un regime is unable to accelerate that timeline.
The progress North Korea has made in its missile and nuclear weapons program has taken place over decades and across multiple U.S. presidencies, both Democrats and Republicans. When Pompeo took control of the CIA in January 2017, he found there was an "insufficient focus" on the problem of North Korea, as well as other key national security threats.
"I came in looking at several of these problems and realized that frankly, we had been whistling past the graveyard for decades on some of these," Pompeo explained.
He clarified that in North Korea, the CIA had not "ignored" the problem or "missed material things," but previous administrations had not prioritized the threat in the ways that were needed.
After Donald Trump's first year in office, the CIA director believes the United States is in a "much better place today than we were twelve months ago." The CIA now has a well-staffed Korean mission center working to fill in intelligence gaps. That includes determining whether the U.S. and international sanctions are "having sufficient effect" on the regime, andb figuring out which entities continue to evade sanctions.
The intelligence community is also focused on making sure Kim Jong Un fully understands Donald Trump's position is unequivocal, that the U.S. government is "laser-focused" on a diplomatic solution that results in the permanent denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, to "foreclose this risk" of a nuclear North Korea.
This is a particularly urgent challenge in light of Kim's new year's message, making clear his intent to "mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles."
In the United States, the North Korean missile threat became palpable last week when Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency mistakenly sent out a warning of an incoming ballistic missile.
Defense hawks, like former UN Ambassador John Bolton, have warned publicly that the decades of U.S. tolerance for North Korea and its enablers, like China and Russia, have resulted in the current state of affairs, where North Korea is only a handful of months away from having a nuclear program that can directly threaten the United States.
"After years of presidents and political leaders, Democrat and Republican, saying it's unacceptable for North Korea to get to this point, they are almost at the point," Bolton said this week on Fox News. "We have failed and the due bill has come due, leaving it for Trump to make some pretty hard decisions."
Those decisions, he said, include whether or not to use military force.
Director Pompeo refrained from discussing the specific set of options he has presented to the president but said the administration is focused on taking "real-world actions," from sanctions and military drills to harsh public statements, that clearly communicate the current administration's intentions.
Still, while the CIA believes Kim Jong Un is a rational actor, Pompeo remains concerned that he may misinterpret the U.S. administration. Specifically, he worries that senior officials in Pyongyang are not providing "good, accurate information" about the United States, its posture and what the Trump administration is prepared to do to bring about a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
"It's not a healthy thing to be a senior leader and bring bad news to Kim Jong Un," Pompeo said half-joking. "Tell somebody you're going to do that and try and get life insurance."
While many experts agree that Donald Trump deserves credit for his "maximum pressure" campaign against North Korea, some are understandably concerned by the short timeline Mike Pompeo laid out as North Korea pushes to complete a fully functional nuclear arsenal.
"The overall assessment is that time is running out if we're interested in heading off North Korea's development of these weapons systems," said Anthony Ruggiero, a North Korea expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Where previous administrations have failed is in making denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula a priority and allowing the clock to run out. According to Ruggiero, the Trump administration "deserves credit" for their tougher policy on North Korea, though "they still didn't go far enough."
Now, the greatest concern is that the North Koreans will try to run out the clock on the Trump administration with its latest round of talks with South Korea around the Winter Olympics.
Earlier this month, the North and South held their highest-level government talks in more than three years, aimed at reducing tensions ahead of the Olympics in Pyeongchang. In a show of good faith, the South Koreans agreed to postpone joint military exercises with the United States until after the Olympic and Paralympic Games conclude in March.
The South Korean President, Moon Jae-In, spoke optimistically about the pre-Olympics talks, saying they represented a "groundbreaking" opportunity for improved Korean relations.
On Monday, Moon described the inter-Korean dialogue as a "precious chance to open the door" to resolve the nuclear issue. He encouraged continued, sustained dialogue, expressing his hope that beyond the Olympics, the inter-Korea talks "will lead to talks between the United States and North Korea and other forms of dialogue."
Ruggiero is concerned that the outcome of such talks would be slowing the pace and pressure the U.S. has already brought to bear on North Korea.
"My main concern with the inter-Korean talks is that...the South Koreans are going to want to continue these talks for a set period of time, it might even be months after the Olympics are completed in March, and the United States may lose the momentum of the maximum pressure policy," Ruggiero warned.
"We've been down this road before," he continued. "They Koreans entice us with this illusion of peace and then still engage in their weapons programs outside the watchful eye of the public."
Instead, he insisted the administration should keep its focus on the making sure the sanctions and coercive diplomacy are continuing and that the military exercises postponed until after the Olympics also start up again. "It's going to be a difficult test, at least in the first half of this year, for the Trump administration to navigate that and increase the pressure while the two Koreas are talking to each other."
President of the defense consulting firm, GeoStrategic Analysis, Peter Huessy, is also concerned that the United States could lose momentum by falling into the decades-old pattern of engaging in talks with North Korea, without producing any tangible results.
The administration has to be clear with the North Koreans, he said, "that if you want to negotiate a deal, we're here to negotiate a deal. But it's going to be on the denuclearization of the peninsula, not a rope-a-dope thing...where the talks go on and and on and on."
While the diplomatic angle is important, Huessy noted the essential components of U.S. leadership on this issue will be "cementing the deterrent value of the Japanese and South Koreans," which will include making improvements in regional missile defense.
U.S. leadership must also include bringing other countries on board to cut off the money that is continuing to flow into North Korea and interdicting the defense technology they are using to continue to advance their nuclear program.
"This administration is doing better, but you have to be serious," Huessy stressed. While Trump and his national security team have gotten tougher on North Korea and their international sponsors, they have still "pulled their punches" in dealing with China, particularly the banking interests that continue to do business with both North Korea and the United States.
"Mr. Pomepo is right, that we have an obligation to work very hard to reduce and push back Kim's capability," Huessy said. "We may not be able to, but I think we have to do everything possible to see that we can denuclearize the peninsula."