North Korea will keep testing missiles and nukes, defense agency says

WASHINGTON — North Korea has three long-range missiles, two of which can hit the U.S., and will likely continue its nuclear and missile testing, says the head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in a new worldwide threat assessment.

Despite sanctions and international condemnation, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un "shows no interest in voluntarily walking away from his nuclear or missile programs, which he has made central to his security strategy," wrote Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley in an assessment to be delivered to the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.

"Additional missile launches — from short range to intercontinental range — are a near certainty," wrote Ashley, "and further nuclear tests are possible as Pyongyang seeks to refine its weapon designs."

Ashley's remarks were prepared before Tuesday morning's news that South Korean officials say Kim Jong Un is willing to talk to the U.S. about eliminating his nuclear arsenal and would suspend nuclear and missile testing during those negotiations.

SK Officials: Kim Jong Un agrees to discuss giving up nuclear arsenal 1:52

"The North Korean side clearly stated its willingness to denuclearize," said the South Korean president's office in a statement after meetings between South Korean envoys and Kim Jong Un. "It made it clear that it would have no reason to keep nuclear weapons if the military threat to the North was eliminated and its security guaranteed."

North Korean capabilities

Ashley said that North Korea tested two types of intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2017 that could hit the U.S., a Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15. Pyongyang also tested two Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missiles over Japan last year, the second of which "demonstrated a capability to range more than 3,700 kilometers, which can reach beyond Guam." 

Ashley's assessment also detailed North Korea's formidable non-nuclear threats.

Pyongyang's shorter range ballistic arsenal threatens Seoul more than ever, according to Ashley. North Korea has thousands of long-range artillery and rocket systems along the demilitarized zone and a nearly operational close-range ballistic missile capable of reaching Seoul and major U.S. air and ground bases farther south.

Image: Robert Ashley
Defense Intelligence Agency Director Robert Ashley testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Feb. 13, 2018. Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters file

"With its large artillery and infantry force forward- deployed, the KPA can mount an attack on South Korean and U.S. forces with little or no warning," he wrote.

In addition, North Korea may be sitting on "up to several thousand tons" of chemical agents, such as "nerve, blister, blood, and choking agents."

Russia and China

The assessment says that two of America's other adversaries are also modernizing their nuclear arsenals. Russia is developing a new nuclear submarine, and China is on the brink of having a true nuclear "triad."

"Many states will continue to view nuclear weapons as both the guarantor of regime survival and a critical capability in a conflict with a conventionally superior adversary," he wrote.

China's People's Liberation Army is close to having credible nuclear capabilities from air, land, and sea. With a new intermediate-range ballistic missile, the DF-26, capable of conducting nuclear strikes "against targets as far away as Guam," according to the assessment, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, and a new strategic bomber with a nuclear mission, China's nuclear deterrent is growing.

Image: China parade
Military vehicles carrying DF-26 ballistic missiles drive past the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing, China, during a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two. Andy Wong / Getty Images file

Several of China's new long-range land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles can reach supersonic speeds and can be launched from air, land, surface ship, and submarine.

"The ongoing modernization of the PLA's nuclear force," Ashley wrote, is "intended to ensure the viability of China's strategic deterrent in the face of perceived advances in U.S. and, to a lesser extent, Russian offensive and defensive capabilities."

In Russia, a nuclear force is "the foundation" of the Kremlin's national security strategy, Ashley wrote.

Moscow is building a new nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine and "refurbishing its long-range strategic bombers to carry the newest air-launched cruise missiles, the AS- 23a conventional variant and the AS-23b nuclear variant."

President Vladimir Putin showcased his ICBM and cruise missile capabilities last week, but Ashley warned that Russia now sees information and cyber as a crucial battlefield as well.

"Russia increasingly considers the information sphere as a new domain for modern military conflict," he wrote. "The Kremlin is further developing these capabilities and its capacity to carry out information warfare, or what it calls 'information confrontation.'"

Putin claims Russia has new 'invincible' nuclear missile 1:45

Moscow sees the weaponization of information as a key element in Russian strategy, Ashley wrote, and "employs a full range of capabilities, including pro-Kremlin media outlets and websites, bots and trolls on social media, search engine manipulation, and paid journalists in foreign media, to sway Western attitudes toward Russia and in favor of Russian governmental objectives."

A questionable U.S. ally is also increasing its nuclear stockpile and developing tactical nuclear weapons, according to Ashley. "In January 2017, Pakistan conducted the first test launch of its nuclear-capable Ababeel ballistic missile, demonstrating South Asia's first MIRV payload, and in early July, Pakistan demonstrated an expanded-range Nasr CRBM."