In line with its announcement last year to “adjust and alter” the use of existing facilities, North Korea has expanded the size of a uranium enrichment plant and restarted a plutonium-based reactor, Clapper said in the intelligence community’s annual report on threats facing the U.S., delivered to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
That reactor, along with an associated reprocessing plant and nuclear fuel rod fabrication facility at the Yongbyon complex north of Pyongyang, was “disabled” in 2007, in exchange for economic and diplomatic concessions that included the removal of North Korea from the State Department’s terrorism list the following year.
Now, Clapper has confirmed that in the intelligence community’s view, the reactor has been restarted and the enrichment facility expanded. His confirmation follows earlier assessments by non-government experts, based on analysis of satellite imagery.
North Korea has tested nuclear weapons three times, most recently last February. Experts do not believe the regime has yet the ability to mount a nuclear warhead onto a delivery system, but its ballistic missile program is advancing.
Clapper reported that North Korea remains “committed to developing long-range missile technology that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States,” and noted that it has now twice publicly displayed a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) known as the KN-08.
“We assess that North Korea has already taken initial steps towards fielding this system, although it remains untested,” he said of the KN-08.
(At a Pentagon briefing last March, Joint Chiefs of Staff vice-chairman Adm. James Winnefeld was asked about the potential range of the KN-08, which had been seen at a military parade in Pyongyang, and in his reply said, “we believe the KN-08 probably does have the range to reach the United States.”)
“North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious threat to the United States and to the security environment in East Asia, a region with some of the world’s largest populations, militaries and economies,” Clapper told the Senate panel.
North Korea did not merit a mention Tuesday in Obama’s State of the Union speech, which focused heavily on domestic issues but did include a portion on foreign policy.
He did refer broadly to the U.S. shaping “a future of greater security and prosperity” in the Asia-Pacific.
“The president said his administration is focused on bringing greater security to Asia, yet he didn’t even mention the North Korean nuclear threat, which his administration has ignored,” commented House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.).
Guests invited by members of Congress to attend the SOTU included the mother and sister of Kenneth Bae, an American Christian arrested in North Korea in 2012 and sentenced last April to 15 years’ hard labor for “hostile acts” aimed at bringing down the regime.
‘Long’ list of crises, threats
The intelligence assessment delivered during Wednesday’s Senate committee hearing was a grim assessment of worldwide threats including those arising from terrorism, political uprisings, sectarian conflict, weapons of mass destruction proliferation, an assertive Russia, and a rising China’s more muscular foreign policy and efforts to counterbalance U.S. influence in the region.
“Looking back over my more than half a century in intelligence, I have not experienced a time when we have been beset by more crises and threats around the globe,” Clapper said. “My list is long.”
He portrayed Syria as “a growing center of radical extremism” and an increasingly destabilizing factor in the wider region, with violent spillovers in Lebanon and Iraq.
Of the between 75,000 and 110,000 fighters in Syria, he said, the intelligence community would “grade as extremists” about 26,000.
Clapper said further that more than 7,000 foreign fighters from some 50 countries have joined the fight, a matter of great concern to the U.S. and their countries of origin, many in Europe.
“Tremendous concern here for these extremist who are attracted to Syria, engage in combat, get training – and we’re seeing now the appearance of training complexes in Syria to train people to go back to their countries and, of course, conduct more terrorist acts. So this is a huge concern to all of us.”