The Central Intelligence Agency assesses that North Korea will have a reliable capability to strike at the continental United States in only a few months.
“The way we ought to think about it is reliability,” CIA Director Mike Pompeo told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute on Jan. 23. “Can they reliably deliver the pain which Kim Jong-un wants to be able to deliver to the United States of America?”
Pompeo notes that there is a world of difference between being able to build a rudimentary capability to build an intercontinental ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead that can possibly hit the United States if everything goes right versus a reliable weapon that will hit the target every time. Pompeo did seem to concede that North Korea has a rudimentary capability to strike at the American mainland—which seems to contrast slightly with the White House position.
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“Yes, it’s possible, you could if everything went right—missile flew in the right direction and we got luck and we could do it as opposed to certainty” Pompeo said. “This is the core of deterrence theory. You have to be certain that what you aim to deliver will actually be successful. At the very least you have to make sure your adversary believes that.”
North Korea’s goal—in Pompeo’s view—is to make sure that Washington believes that it is capable of delivering a nuclear payload with absolute certainty. Once Pyongyang achieves that end, it will achieve deterrence against Washington. By contrast, Pompeo said, the United States’ goal is to prevent that day for as long as possible. “Our mission is to make the day he can do that as far away as possible,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo also said that the United States’ intelligence community had anticipated North Korean missile development and testing capacity—well before his time as director of the CIA. The intelligence community cannot precisely predict developments now to individual days or weeks, but in aggregate, the community was on target in its assessment of North Korea’s progress. “We continue to believe we’re delivering good solid information on the North Korean missile testing program,” Pompeo said. “We’re pretty confident on that.”
Pompeo declined to address if the United States should launch a preemptive strike on North Korea, noting that is not the intelligence community’s job to address that issue. The intelligence community is there to provide the President accurate information on all of the available options on dealing with the problem, Pompeo noted. “So that we understand what’s going on and the risks associated with it,” Pompeo said.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.