The CIA has a better understanding of North Korea's efforts to develop nuclear missiles that can reliably hit targets in the United States, the agency's director said Tuesday, but is still working to make up for what he described as insufficient attention to the country under previous administrations.
"We're in a much better place today than we were 12 months ago," Mike Pompeo said in remarks at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington on his first anniversary as the spy agency chief. "We are still suffering from having gaps."
Pompeo was careful not to assign blame to the agency he now leads and acknowledged that obtaining accurate and reliable information from inside North Korea has been difficult for many years. But he said previous efforts had fallen short of the goals the Trump administration set for preventing the country from developing nuclear weapons that can strike inside the United States.
Pompeo said Pyongyang was a few months away from being able to build intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reliably strike U.S. targets, an assessment he has previously given.
"They have moved at a very rapid clip," he said, noting that the frequency and success of missile tests had increased.
He cautioned that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was not likely to stop with the development of a single missile.
"The logical next step would be to develop an arsenal of weapons," Pompeo said. He added that the administration was focused on a policy of denying North Korea the ability to do so, but he declined to offer policy prescriptions or say whether the United States was prepared to launch a preemptive military strike.
Pompeo affirmed that the CIA has concluded that Kim is a "rational actor." But he questioned whether the North Korean leader was getting a full, accurate picture on crucial issues, including the dire state of his own economy, from his retinue of senior advisers.
North Korea's nuclear weapons program has consumed much of the Trump administration's foreign policy focus in its first year and prompted bellicose statements from the president. Earlier this month in a Twitter message, Trump bragged that his "Nuclear Button" was "much bigger & more powerful" than Kim's, "and my Button works!"
The president's remarks indicated that he thinks North Korea has yet to field reliable nuclear weapons that can hit U.S. targets.
U.S. officials have concluded that North Korea would be able to field a reliable, nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile as early as this year and that the country has already produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles — a key milestone in becoming a fully capable nuclear power.
Pompeo credited the CIA with improving its intelligence-gathering in other areas on North Korea, long considered one of the most opaque regimes in the world. Over the past year, he said, the agency has helped interdict shipments of goods into North Korea that are banned under United Nations sanctions.
Pompeo didn't cite specific examples. But in September, a senior Treasury Department official told Congress that North Korea uses deceptive practices — such as falsifying shipping vessel documents — to illicitly bring luxury goods and staples, such as coal, into the country from China and Russia.