WASHINGTON (CN) – North Korea could have a reliable nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile program capable of striking North American cities as early as next year – shaving two years off of previous estimates, according to reports.
The new assessment came from the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency and shows surprising advances in North Korea’s missile technology, U.S. officials familiar with the document told the Washington Post Tuesday.
The report gave new urgency to a bipartisan Senate push to toughen sanctions on North Korea, which was the focus of a committee hearing Tuesday afternoon.
State Department official Susan Thornton offered testimony to the Foreign Affairs Committee about the administration’s policy toward the rapid development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. She first recounted several stark lessons gleaned from the failure of five previous administrations to contain the problem.
“First – North Korea has no intention of abandoning its nuclear program in the current environment,” Thornton said. “North Korea will not give up its weapons in exchange for talks, even with economic concessions that provide sorely needed assistance to the North Korean people.”
Although the administration views negotiations as the best way forward, Thornton said current conditions are not conducive to dialogue.
“We will not negotiate our way to talks,” she said.
Thornton outlined the administration’s current strategy, which she said the State Department has “relentlessly implemented.” The United States has called on U.N. member states to fully adhere to international sanctions on North Korea, to downgrade diplomatic relations with Pyongyang and to cut trade ties with North Korea to increase its financial isolation.
North Korea has never faced sustained diplomatic and economic pressure, Thornton said.
“We aim to change that,” she added.
Thornton told the committee the administration seeks international cooperation, but will not hesitate to take unilateral action to contain North Korea’s nuclear program.
Thornton’s testimony stirred Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who expressed a sense of urgency in light of the Washington Post report.
“Time is of the essence,” he said. “This is the last best chance we’re going to have to deter them.”
Markey pressed Thornton about proposed legislation before the Senate that would impose broad sanctions on 10 Chinese companies that Markey said do the most business with the North Korean government.
“We want to move on this rapidly so that the Chinese know that we’re serious and the North Koreans know that we’re serious,” Markey said during the hearing.
The Massachusetts senator asked Thornton if the Trump administration supports, opposes or is neutral about the Senate effort.
According to Thornton’s testimony, the State Department would support targeting entities that are violating the sanctions. However, she said she would need more information about who the 10 entities are and what they’ve been doing.
“We would certainly not hesitate to go after companies that we have that kind of information on,” Thornton said. “So I think we are kind of in the same mode of wanting to ratchet up quickly as far as signaling to North Korea about what it is we’re trying to do, since they don’t seem to be willing to enter into a serious negotiation.”
Thornton said U.S. diplomatic efforts are focused on communicating to North Korea that the United States seeks denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
“The secretary has been very clear that we’re not pursuing regime change in North Korea, we’re not pursuing a collapse or an accelerated reunification,” Thornton said.
Markey pressed her for details about what the Trump administration is telling the Chinese government about U.S. intentions to tighten sanctions “in a vice-like grip” on companies doing business with North Korea as a way to get to negotiations and increase pressure on North Korea.
Such measure are likely to be opposed by China.
According to Thornton, the administration has had conversations with Chinese officials about tightening sanctions, making clear the United States won’t hesitate to take further action if Chinese companies are violating the North Korea sanctions.
She repeated that she is unaware of the 10 companies identified in the Senate bill but said the State Department has spoken with Chinese officials about other companies and entities that are involved with North Korea.