CIA Boss Gives Latest Indication Trump May Consider Preemptive Strike on North Korea

The spy agency is briefing the president about military options on North Korea, which outside analysts warn could escalate to nuclear war.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The Central Intelligence Agency is briefing President Donald Trump on the risks and opportunities of a limited attack on North Korea, its director suggested on Tuesday.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo would not discuss the “wisdom of a preemptive strike” on Pyongyang or its nuclear weapons program, he told an audience at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. But in rare public remarks, Pompeo portrayed North Korea as an urgent priority for the agency, and disclosed aspects of its role in setting back Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program during his first year at Langley.

Kim is a rational man, Pompeo said the CIA had assessed. But it’s less clear that Kim takes seriously the prospect of a U.S. attack, something that could blunder the world into a devastating nuclear conflict.

Pompeo would not answer if options exist for Trump to attack North Korea short of a nuclear war. Analysts warn a limited strike would lead to such a war should North Korea retaliate and prompt escalation. He indicated instead the administration was developing a range of options spanning from diplomacy to war, so Trump will not face a binary choice between inaction and potential nuclear devastation.

“We’re working to prepare a series of options to make sure that we can deliver a range of things so the president will have the full suite of possibilities. The president is intent on delivering this solution through diplomatic means,” Pompeo told AEI’s Marc Thiessen.

“We are equally at the same time ensuring that if we conclude that is not possible, that we present the president a range of options to achieve what is his stated intention,” Pompeo continued, which he later described as to “denuclearize permanently” North Korea, “that we’re gonna foreclose this risk.”

A former North Korean spy, Kim Hyon-hui, indicated to NBC News that Trump’s goal of denuclearizing a country that has been a nuclear state for over a decade is not achievable diplomatically: “North Korea won’t give up its nuclear weapons. They’re its lifeline.”

Pompeo said he would “leave to others to address the capacity or the wisdom of a preemptive strike. From an intelligence perspective, we’re trying to ensure that all the various options that the president might want to consider are fully informed, that we understand what’s really going on and the risks associated with each of those decisions as best we can identify them for him.”

Trump has given reason to doubt Pompeo’s statement that he is looking to resolve the Korea nuclear crisis peacefully. In October, he said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “wasting his time” attempting negotiations with Kim. After Tillerson stated publicly last month that he was willing to talk with North Korea without any precondition, the White House again shut him down. All that followed Trump’s infamous August declaration that North Korean provocations would be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Trump has given reason to doubt Pompeo’s statement that he is looking to resolve the Korea nuclear crisis peacefully.

Over the past year, the CIA has “creatively” taken active steps to increase U.S. capacity to interdict shipments of sanctioned material into North Korea, Pompeo revealed. But he said it still remained short of an assessed level of necessity, and that he lacked a full picture of the effect of international sanctions on the North Korean nuclear program. Last May, Pompeo established a new operational and analytic “mission center” focused on Korea to increase the CIA’s visibility into and efficacy against Pyongyang.

Pompeo on Monday told CBS News that North Korea was a “handful of months” away from being able to reliably deliver a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile to the United States. While he told CBS News that he “hoped to be able to say that a year from now as well,” the CIA director clarified at AEI that he was not suggesting his satisfaction over stalling the North Koreans’ advanced missile program.

“It is still a secondary mission to ensure that we keep them from that capability,” Pompeo said.

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In advance of next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, fears are widespread that the games are a pause before some form of confrontation between Trump and Kim. The U.S. military is taking increasing steps to prepare what it describes as routine contingencies, such as increased drilling and a special-operations deployment, focusing on the prospect of war on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea will participate in the Olympics, which South Korean President Moon Jae-in characterized as a diplomatic opportunity to ease tensions. Earlier this month, the two Koreas met for their first diplomatic talks in two years—with the United States excluded.

Seoul, the South Korean capital, is a city of 10 million people in range of North Korea’s frightening array of artillery, and most scenarios for a conflict presume the city’s annihilation in the opening stage of a war.

Pyongyang on Tuesday announced that the first day of the Olympics, Feb. 8, will be a national holiday celebrating its army, carrying the prospect of a high-profile demonstration of its military capacity—and a tacit threat as the world assembles for the games. Pompeo appeared to consider that likely, referring to the Feb. 8 date as one the CIA will be watching.

North Korea’s state propaganda organs have portrayed its nuclear and missile programs as focused exclusively on the U.S. But Pompeo said Kim does not view his nuclear arsenal as limited to deterring the U.S. from attack and to preserve his rule.

“We do believe that Kim Jong Un, given these tool sets, would use them for things besides simply regime protections—that is, to put pressure on what is his ultimate goal, which is reunification of the peninsula under his authority,” Pompeo said, ultimately adding: “This is a threat to the whole world.”