North Korean claims that its newly-tested ballistic missile can carry a nuclear warhead appear to explain a subtle but significant shift in the way U.S. intelligence views Pyongyang.
Top officials, who once described North Korea as a “second tier” adversary with more intent than capability, now refer to it as an “increasingly grave” threat bent on demonstrating that the United States will soon be within its military reach.
“We have assessed this as a very significant, potentially existential threat to the United States that has to be addressed,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told lawmakers during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last week on worldwide threats.
“It is the highest priority, one of the highest, if not the highest priority of the intelligence community at this time,” Coats added.
Coats’ comments seem to contrast the view taken by his predecessor, James Clapper, who just over a year ago told lawmakers that among nation states, Russia and China were the “prime” threats to the U.S.
And earlier this month, then-FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Russia poses “the greatest threat of any nation on Earth, given their intention and their capability.”
Current and former officials, however, caution the intelligence community’s use of increasingly stronger language to describe the threat from North Korea is not so much a change in thinking as it is a stark acknowledgment of an evolving threat.
Likewise, they warn that the elevation of North Korea on its list of threats should in no way diminish the danger posed by Russia.
"It's hard to rack and stack the North Korean and the Russian threat,” former CIA and National Security Agency Director, Gen. Michael Hayden, told VOA via email.
“Russia is more global, more powerful but also in its own way more restrained,” he said, while North Korea “is more willing to conduct provocative and unpredictable action."
Such unpredictability, combined with what officials have described as a ratcheting up of its development and testing program over the past year, has many now describing the North Korean issue as one that has escalated from a regional threat to a global one.
The ever more dire warnings appear to have found a receptive audience, both in the White House and Congress.
Asked about Comey’s testimony earlier this month describing Russia as the greatest threat, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters the president has been “very clear” about his views regarding the North Korea nuclear threat.
Likewise, during last week’s Intelligence Committee hearing, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein called the latest assessments on North Korea’s activities “deeply concerning.”
“I would argue that the greatest danger to the United States is North Korea,” she said.
Making the situation even more worrisome for U.S. officials is what they described as a persistent lack of clarity about what is going on inside such an isolated country.
In response, the CIA last week announced the creation of a Korea Mission Center to “get back on our front foot with respect to foreign intelligence collection,” according to CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
“We should not all focus simply on the ICBM's either,” Pompeo told lawmakers.
In fact, the latest, unclassified U.S. intelligence assessment raises significant concerns about North Korea’s conventional military force.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “has further expanded the regime’s conventional strike options in recent years,” the assessment warns, citing better training and upgraded artillery systems.
South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo told the country’s parliament Tuesday that not only was Sunday’s missile test successful, but that the program itself was developing faster than expected.
“There’s a worry about where they’re really going with this march forward -- how far are they going to take it?” said Cortney Weinbaum, a senior technical analyst at the RAND Corporation. “It adds a very thick layer of uncertainty that makes a lot of people very nervous.”
Weinbaum, who spent 14 years working for U.S. intelligence agencies and the Defense Department, said the uncertainty alone would merit elevating North Korea on the list of threats.
Adding to the concerns is a growing realization that while international sanctions may have slowed North Korea’s progress, they have not stopped it altogether.
“The North Koreans have really perfected their networks and driven them deep underground,” Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton said at forum in Washington late last month.
“It’s very necessary for the international community to come together and share information and go after some of these companies that are providing either products or equipment that contribute to the weapons program or financial measures that continue to the sort of sustainment of the regime,” she said.
U.S. officials say China, for one, has shown a willingness to take significant financial and economic action against Pyongyang, pointing to the recent ban on North Korean coal imports, but caution it is just the start.
“The intelligence suggests we're going to need more to shake free this terribly challenging problem,” said the CIA’s Pompeo.