Top intel chief says North Korea's weapons of mass destruction are the biggest threat to the US

(Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
  • US Intelligence chiefs said Tuesday that North Korea will be one of the most confrontational threats to the US this year.
  • North Korea’s relentless push for nuclear weapons that could strike the US and its increasing cyberwarfare activities pose legitimate concerns for US national security, the officials said.
  • During the annual hearing on worldwide threats, officials also warned of the dangers posed by Russia, Iran, and China.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats issued a dire warning Tuesday about the threat North Korea poses to the United States, citing its intentions to amass weapons of mass destruction.

“North Korea will be the most volatile and confrontational WMD threat in the coming year,” Coats said during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats. “In addition to its ballistic missile tests and growing number of nuclear warheads for these missiles, North Korea will continue its longstanding chemical and biological warfare programs.”

Coats also said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un views any effort to force him to give up his nuclear weapons as an existential threat to his grip on power, and that “decision time is becoming ever closer in terms of how we respond to this.”

The Trump administration has called for a peaceful resolution to curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but has not ruled out preemptive military action.

North Korea started to accelerate its missile testing in 2016, and Coats said it’s likely to continue with more aggressive testing in 2018. He said the Hermit Kingdom has also leveraged its cyber espionage capabilities to inflict harm on the US and other Western countries, and will likely continue to do so.

Past attacks

In May 2017, malicious actors developed and launched the so-called WannaCry ransomware to target computer systems around the world, encrypting vital data and demanding ransom payments in Bitcoin. The massive cyber attack destabilized operations in hospitals, schools, businesses, and infrastructure across 150 countries.

Last December, the US officially blamed North Korean hackers for the attack, even though Pyongyang had previously denied any role, calling the accusation “ridiculous.”

US federal prosecutors have also suspected that North Korea was behind the 2016 cyber theft of $US81 million from the Bank of Bangladesh and the massive cyber attack against Sony Entertainment in 2014, which resulted in the leaks of thousands of private emails, social security numbers, unreleased films, and a complete data wipe of half of the company’s network.

Other threats

At Tuesday’s hearing, Coats joined five other top intelligence officials to brief lawmakers on global threats to the US. In addition to North Korea, the officials specifically called out the increasing threats posed by Russia, Iran, and China.

The intelligence chiefs unanimously agreed that Russia is likely to pursue “even more aggressive cyber attacks” than what it has previously undertaken “with the intent of degrading our democratic values and weakening our alliances.”

“These states are using cyber operations as a low-cost tool of statecraft, and we assess that they will work to use cyber operations to achieve strategic objectives unless they face clear repercussions for their cyber operations,” Coats said in prepared written remarks.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.