'Decision time' on North Korea fast approaching

US director of national intelligence Dan Coats said North Korea presents "a potentially existential" threat to the US, and is likely to conduct more weapons tests this year.
US director of national intelligence Dan Coats said North Korea presents "a potentially existential" threat to the US, and is likely to conduct more weapons tests this year.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • The US director of national intelligence has warned that time is running out for the United States to act on the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.

North Korea presents "a potentially existential" threat to the US, and is likely to conduct more weapons tests this year, Mr Dan Coats said at the Senate Intelligence Committee's annual hearing on worldwide threats on Tuesday.

"Decision time is becoming ever closer in terms of how we respond to this," Mr Coats said. "Our goal is a peaceful settlement. We are using maximum pressure on North Korea in various ways."

The warning came despite an easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula after talks resumed between North and South Korea, and as the North participated in the Winter Olympics hosted by the South.

While the Trump administration has stressed its preference for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over North Korea's development of nuclear weapons that are capable of hitting the US, it has warned that all options are on the table, including military ones, to prevent this.

Last month, Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo said North Korea could be only "a handful of months" away from being able to launch a nuclear attack on the US.

Mr Pompeo told Tuesday's hearing that despite the North-South talks, there was "no indication there is any strategic change" in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's desire to remain a nuclear threat to the US.

Talk of preventative military strikes has eased since the Koreas resumed dialogue last month, and Washington has appeared to endorse deeper post-Olympics engagement between the two Koreas that could lead to US-North Korean talks. However, it has also stressed the need to ramp up sanctions to force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

The Trump administration has told South Korea it is open to holding preliminary talks with North Korea, according to two senior administration officials and a spokesman for South Korean President Moon Jae In.

The decision came after US Vice-President Mike Pence attended the Winter Olympics opening in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

For months, the White House has rejected the idea of meeting with North Korea unless it took measurable steps towards giving up its nuclear stockpile and curbing its provocative behaviour. Now, though, with Mr Moon determined to engage with the North, these officials said the administration has decided on a course correction.

The decision was a victory for South Korea. "The United States, too, looks positively at South-North Korean dialogue and has expressed its willingness to start dialogue with the North," Mr Moon said on Tuesday, according to his spokesman Kim Eui Kyeom.

US officials were more guarded, saying they were open to talks but not a full-fledged negotiation.

When Mr Pence and Mr Moon met last week, the allies apparently found common ground: They would agree to talks without set rules, but they would continue to use sanctions as leverage.

Reports that Washington and Seoul had reached an understanding on the possibility of dialogue appeared in the news media after the Vice-President's departure on Saturday, but South Korean officials would not confirm them until Tuesday.

REUTERS, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2018, with the headline ''Decision time' on North Korea fast approaching'. Print Edition | Subscribe