North Korea's ballistic missile program would eventually yield systems capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the United States, a senior U.S. intelligence official said on Wednesday.
The North Korean missile threat is "very different from what we had 40 years ago with the Soviet Union and the threat of first strikes," Raymond Colston, the new national intelligence manager for Korea at the National Intelligence Director's Office, said during a Capitol Hill panel discussion of Korean Peninsula security issues.
"No one is looking at the North Koreans as building these systems to have a first-strike capability or anything like that. That's not what we're really concerned about. But they are certainly building missiles that eventually will be capable of targeting the U.S., and these missiles will be capable of having nuclear weapons."
The North has an aggressive missile development program that has included two apparent test launches of its Taepodong 2 long-range ballistic missile, in 2006 and 2009. The first flight ended in less than a minute, while the second rocket flew farther but apparently crashed down with the second and third stages failing to separate.
Pyongyang is not known to have yet developed nuclear warheads that could be loaded onto missiles. The regime, though, is believed to hold enough plutonium for six weapons and last November unveiled a uranium enrichment plant that could give it a second route for preparing weapons material.
Years of diplomatic activity under the six-party talks process have failed to persuade the regime to accept nuclear disarmament.
North Korea's proliferation of weapons systems is a "very serious concern," added the official, who spoke on the third day in his present position at the National Intelligence Director's Office.
The U.S. intelligence community, Colston said, has "reasons... to be concerned that North Korea is a country that will sell just about anything, and we don't put past North Korea a willingness to sell even the most dangerous weapons that they might have."
The United States and other nations have sought to curb Pyongyang's ability to make money by exporting missile and weapons technology. According to an expert report submitted last week to the U.N. Security Council, North Korea has persisted in attempts to export ballistic missiles, their components, and relevant technologies to entities in South Asia and the Middle East.
Colston touted the U.S. intelligence community's record in turning up information on North Korean threats, contending it has "given the policymakers, for the most part, the information they need."
"Overall, I think the intelligence community has done a good job of informing the policymakers before [the North Koreans] built the Scuds, before they built the Nodong [medium-range ballistic missile], before they built some of their other missiles, when they were proliferating these missiles," he said.
"Of course, [policymakers'] demands are incredible, and you know they want us to know exactly what the North Koreans are going to do at the next step," said Colston, a veteran intelligence analyst on North Korea and Northeast Asia. "That's their right to ask us, and that's just tough to do.
"We've got a government in North Korea that most will agree is being led by a single individual who is the primary decision-maker," he said in reference to dictator Kim Jong Il. "So how do you get into the mind of a single individual and to figure out what that individual is going to do?"
Developing an understanding of North Korea's ballistic missile planning and other policies "is a challenge for us, and that's what are policymakers are looking for," he said. "We've had some successes, but of course the policymakers always want more."
"When you have a ballistic missile that you can put on the back of a truck, drive out to a field and raise the missile and launch it like they do, when you have that type of a missile, then knowing exactly when and where they might launch it is almost an impossible task -- very, very difficult to do."
Still, the United States is "better off" than it was 10 years ago in assessing the Stalinist state's intentions, he said. "We've made some investments that have really paid off. And the world's changing, the world's changing inside North Korea. So... I think we're better off than we were 10 years ago," he added later, without elaborating.
Kim is believed to be preparing to cede power to his youngest son, Kim Jong Un. The change in leadership is not likely to produce a change on policy in Pyongyang, Colston suggested.
"Most of our folks, we are not expecting many real differences with the third generation," he added.
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