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Spy agencies doubt North Korea will give up nuclear weapons

CIA Director Gina Haspel accompanied by FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. (Jose Luis Magana / AP)
By Robert Burns Associated Press

WASHINGTON – In an assessment casting doubt on President Donald Trump’s goal of a nuclear-disarmed North Korea, U.S. intelligence agencies told Congress on Tuesday that the North is unlikely to entirely dismantle its nuclear arsenal.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, noted that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has expressed support for ridding the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons and has not recently test-fired a nuclear-capable missile or conducted a nuclear test.

“Having said that, we currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD (weapons of mass destruction) capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival,” Coats said in an opening statement.

This skepticism about North Korea is consistent with the intelligence agencies’ views over many years and runs counter to Trump’s assertion after his 2018 Singapore summit with Kim that North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat. Plans for a follow-up summit are in the works but no agenda, venue or date have been announced. In the meantime, U.S. intelligence agencies are observing “activity that is inconsistent with full denuclearization,” Coats said, without giving details.

More broadly, the intelligence report on which Coats and the heads of other intelligence agencies based their testimony predicted that security threats to the United States and its allies this year will expand and diversify, driven in part by China and Russia. It says Moscow and Beijing are more aligned than at any other point since the mid-1950s and their global influence is rising.

The report also said the Islamic State group “remains a terrorist and insurgent threat” inside Iraq, where the government faces “an increasingly disenchanted public.”

In Syria, where Trump has ordered a full withdrawal of U.S. troops, the government of Bashar Assad is likely to consolidate control, with Russia and Iran attempting to further entrench themselves in Syria, the report said. Asked for her assessment, CIA director Gina Haspel said of IS: “They’re still dangerous,” adding that they still command “thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria.”

The intelligence assessment of Afghanistan, more than 17 years into a conflict that began after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., projected a continued military stalemate. Without mentioning prospects for a peace deal, which appear to have improved only in recent days, the report said, “neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban will be able to gain a strategic military advantage in the Afghan war in the coming year” if the U.S. maintains its current levels of support. Trump has ordered a partial pullback of U.S. forces this year, although no firm plan is in place.

Coats told the committee that Russia and perhaps other countries are likely to attempt to use social media and other means to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

“We expect our adversaries and strategic competitors to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other’s experiences, suggesting the threat landscape could look very different in 2020 and future elections,” the intelligence report said.

The report specifically warned about Russia, which U.S. intelligence agencies determined had interfered in the 2016 election to sway voters toward Trump.

“Russia’s social media efforts will continue to focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities, and criticizing perceived anti-Russia politicians,” it said. “Moscow may employ additional influence toolkits – such as spreading disinformation, conducting hack-and-leak operations, or manipulating data – in a more targeted fashion to influence U.S. policy, actions, and elections.”

The intelligence assessment, which is provided annually to Congress, made no mention of a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, which Trump has asserted as the basis for his demand that Congress finance a border wall. The report predicted additional U.S.-bound migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, with migrants preferring to travel in caravans in hopes of a safer journey.