By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un does not appear poised to carry out a nuclear test during U.S.-South Korea military exercises, but the United States is staying vigilant, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency said on Wednesday.
U.S. officials have warned for nearly a year that North Korea may resume nuclear testing for the first time since 2017, a move that would be seen as a serious provocation by the United States, South Korea and Japan.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and other officials warned of that possibility in May 2022 ahead of President Joe Biden’s trip to Asia.
“I have been waiting for that as well,” Lieutenant General Scott Berrier told reporters at DIA headquarters. “There are a bunch of different factors that play into (Kim’s) decision calculus on that. And there are a bunch of things that we watch in terms of indications and warning. Those two haven’t aligned.”
Berrier said Kim could have opted to time a nuclear test to coincide with the ongoing Freedom Shield drills by the U.S. and South Korean militaries. The 11-day exercise is set to conclude on Thursday.
“It doesn’t look like he’s going to do that,” Berrier said. “But he will uncork that at a time and place of his choosing, which is something we’ll be watching for very, very carefully.”
‘MUCH MORE DANGEROUS’
North Korea has long been banned from nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches by the Security Council, which has strengthened sanctions on Pyongyang over the years to cut off funding for those programs.
In recent years the 15-member body has been split on how to deal with North Korea. Although both Russia and China backed toughened sanctions after North Korea’s last nuclear test, in May 2022 they vetoed a U.S.-led push to impose more U.N. sanctions over North Korea’s renewed ballistic missile launches.
North Korea conducted an unprecedented number of such launches last year, including intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to reach the U.S. mainland.
That testing continues. North Korea fired several cruise missiles off its east coast on Wednesday, three days after firing a short-range ballistic missile into the sea.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said Wednesday’s launches could have involved strategic cruise missiles.
“Strategic” is typically used to describe weapons that have a nuclear capability. North Korea’s last known firing of strategic cruise missiles was on March 12, when it said it fired two from a submarine. Asked about the flurry of testing by North Korea, Berrier said he believed Kim was still not satisfied with his deterrent, despite the advances in his military programs in recent years.
“He continues to pursue greater accuracy and lethality with his with his missile force,” Berrier said.
He noted that North Korea’s conventional ground forces “have atrophied over time” as Kim has advanced his nuclear weapons and missile programs.
“But I think it is a much more dangerous North Korea than it has been in the past,” Berrier said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart. Editing by Gerry Doyle)