North Korea could acquire the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States within "months," a top American spy official said Thursday.
"It is the case that they are close enough now in their capabilities that from a U.S. policy perspective, we ought to behave as if we are on the cusp of them achieving that objective," Pompeo said during a question-and-answer session hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
"When you're now talking about months, our capacity to understand that at the detailed level is in some sense irrelevant," he said. "Whether it happens on Tuesday or a month from Tuesday, we are at a time where the president has concluded that we need a global effort to ensure that Kim Jong Un doesn't have that capacity."
Pompeo's artful assessment didn't disguise the urgency of the North Korea nuclear threat, as he allowed that "intelligence is imperfect" but emphasized that every nuclear weapon or ballistic missile test heightens the danger posed by the regime.
North Korea rattled the world with an unprecedented intercontinental ballistic missile test, followed by repeated launches of missiles over Japan in defiance of international sanctions.
"They are closer now than they were five years ago, and I expect they will be closer in five months than they are today, absent a global effort to push back against them," CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Thursday. "It's now a matter of thinking about, how do you stop the final step?"
The Trump administration has seen some success in rallying a "peaceful pressure" campaign, buttressed by dramatic shows of force in the region. The United Nations Security Council has passed stiff new sanctions designed to starve the North Korea of the finances necessary to fund the weapons programs.
Even those sanctions were gentler than the United States and western allies sought, however. Russia and China, which have long provided economic lifelines to North Korea, endorsed some sanctions but barred the UN from passing a total oil embargo and other measures.
Those countries have blamed the United States for the escalating crisis, even when they are willing to impose new sanctions. "Beefing up a military deployment around the peninsula is not in the interests of realizing denuclearization of the peninsula and maintaining peace and stability," a Chinese diplomat said in August.
Some U.S. lawmakers believe that China will continue to insulate North Korea from the kind of pressure that could result in negotiations over their nuclear arms program. Pompeo emphasized that Trump is willing to use "military" force to avert the threat of a a strike on the United States, although he recognized the difficult of knowing when that's necessary.
"We are diligently trying to refine that answer," Pompeo said. "To think we'll have granularity in days and weeks, I think, is something we all now have to accept we won't have."
If North Korea does take that "final step," the regime still won't be able to act with utter impunity, Pompeo noted. And U.S. intelligence agencies and diplomats will still have work to do.
"It's one thing to be able to deliver a single missile along a certain set of trajectories to a certain destination," he said. "Even once you hit the he-can-do-it once moment, there's great risk that proceeds from the continuation of the development of those programs that far exceeds the moment that there is a consensus revolving around whether he can reliably pull it off for a single missile system."