U.S. intelligence chief: North Korea poses 'existential' threat

WASHINGTON (AP) - North Korea's nuclear weapons program poses a potentially "existential" threat to the United States, the national intelligence director said in a bleak appraisal to Congress on Thursday. He wouldn't say how close Pyongyang is to being able to strike the U.S. mainland.

Dan Coats said the unprecedented nuclear and missile testing last year indicates leader Kim Jong Un is intent on proving North Korea's capability. The North's public claims suggest it could conduct its first flight of an intercontinental ballistic missile this year.

And Pyongyang's statements that it needs nuclear weapons to survive suggest Kim "does not intend to negotiate them away at any price," Coats added at a Senate intelligence hearing on worldwide threats.

The heads of six U.S. intelligence agencies reviewed a slew of national security challenges facing the United States, warning about deteriorating security in Afghanistan, China's rising challenge, and Russian and other countries' use of cyberspace to target the U.S. and its allies.

Senators sought an assessment of when North Korea would be able to strike the U.S. with a nuclear weapon. Coats declined to provide such details in an open hearing. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein countered, "It's time for the American people to understand."

Coats, however, described the threat as potentially "existential."

North Korea's missile tests in 2016, including a space launch that put a satellite into orbit, have shortened its pathway toward a reliable intercontinental missile that could strike America, he said, and the North has expanded the size and sophistication of its ballistic missile forces.

Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, the Defense Intelligence Agency's director, said North Korea was at the same time developing a nuclear device and processing fissile material, aiming to miniaturize a device for a warhead to mount on such missiles.

"They are on that path and they are committed to doing that," he said.

On Iran, whose nuclear ambitions preoccupied Washington under President Barack Obama, Coats said the U.S. sees Tehran maintaining last year's agreement that contains its program in exchange for sanctions relief.

The deal has enhanced transparency of Iran's nuclear activities, Coats said, and he cited Obama administration estimates that the time it would take Iran to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon has been extended from a few months to about a year.

But he said the U.S. doesn't know if Iran will eventually decide to try to build nuclear weapons.

Intelligence chiefs gave a somber appraisal of security in Afghanistan, scene of America's longest-running war. U.S. forces invaded after 9/11 to defeat al-Qaida and their Taliban hosts, and the Trump administration is currently reviewing strategy and considering an augmentation of the current 8,500-strong U.S. force.

Coats said the situation will deteriorate and the Taliban will make gains, especially in rural areas. The performance of Afghan national security forces will worsen due to weak military leadership, desertions and combat casualties, he predicted.

If left unchecked, Stewart added, the "stalemate" will deteriorate in the Taliban's favor, risking "all the gains" from U.S.-backed efforts there.

Coats said Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are using cyberspace to target U.S. and its allies and will do so in the future. He described Russia as a threat to U.S. government, military, diplomatic, business and critical infrastructure. China is also targeting the U.S. government and American businesses, Coats said, though he said such activity has diminished since a 2015 U.S.-Chinese agreement addressing cybertheft.

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Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.

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