Pentagon chief declares North Korea the new top threat to US security

US Defense Secretary James Mattis has declared North Korea the "most urgent and dangerous threat to peace and security."
US Defense Secretary James Mattis has declared North Korea the "most urgent and dangerous threat to peace and security." PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - US Defence Secretary James Mattis declared North Korea the "most urgent and dangerous threat to peace and security," before the House Armed Services Committee on Monday (June 12), moving Kim Jong Un's regime past Russia as the No. 1 threat the United States faces.

The statement was included in the defence secretary's prepared opening statement, five months after Mr Mattis identified Russia as first among threats facing the US.

The change comes as Pyongyang moves forward with what the US calls an unprecedented number of tests on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and as the Trump administration's connections to Russia are scrutinised by the FBI.

"North Korea's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them has increased in pace and scope," Mr Mattis said. "The regime's nuclear weapons program is a clear and present danger to all, and the regime's provocative actions, manifestly illegal under international law, have not abated despite United Nations' censure and sanctions."

But he still identified Russia as a threat, along with China, Iran and terrorist organisations.

Russia and China, he said, are both "resurgent and more aggressive", and have placed the "international order under assault".

The secretary has sought to reassure allies in both Europe and the Pacific in recent months that the US still stands with them, after President Donald Trump repeatedly raised questions about whether he was committed to longstanding military alliances.

Mr Mattis appeared alongside Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Pentagon comptroller David Norquist.

In Gen Dunford's prepared testimony, he did not list a No. 1 threat, but labelled Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and terrorist groups as "key challenges" the US faces.

Several senior defence officials aside from Mr Mattis have declared Russia the top threat the US faces in the last few years, including Gen Dunford.

But the US and Russia have forged an uneasy, limited relationship in some areas over the past year, including deconflicting aviation operations over Syria as the Pentagon goes after Islamic State militants and Russia backs the Syrian regime.

Senior US officials have sought recently to get China, a strong trade partner of North Korea, to put diplomatic and economic pressure on Pyongyang to get them to back down from moving ahead with their weapons programmes. But it's uncertain if they will, and Mr Trump has threatened that the US will take care of the North Korean threat on its own if China won't help.

Last week, Navy Vice-Admiral James Syring,  director of the Missile Defence Agency, declined to say before the House subcommittee on strategic forces that the US is "comfortably ahead" of the threat North Korea poses with an intercontinental ballistic missile.

"It is incumbent upon us to assume that North Korea today can range the US with an ICBM carrying a nuclear warhead," he said. "Everything that we are doing plans for that contingency... in addition to looking ahead to what might be developed or what is possible over the next five to 10 years."

Mr Mattis, asked on Monday if the threat posed by ballistic missiles is growing, said that the threat is growing, but that existing missile-defence systems stationed at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California pose an adequate amount of protection as the Pentagon examines long-term options.

Among them is adding a missile-defence site somewhere on the East Coast, he added.

"Every time they fire one of these, they're learning something more so it's a worsening situation," Mr Mattis said. "But we can buy the time right now."

Gen Dunford, asked about the threat, said the US balances its missile-defence systems with other ways to counter North Korea, including cyber warfare, Navy weapons and intelligence collection.