During a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) commander Adm. Philip Davidson warned that a nuclear-armed North Korea is continuing to grow its missile arsenal, including new variants of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, and poses a “serious” and “immediate” threat to the U.S.
“North Korea poses a significant security risk to the United States and our partners in the Indo-Pacific Region,” Davidson wrote in a prepared statement ahead of the Tuesday Senate hearing. “The country has taken no meaningful steps toward denuclearization, despite promising signs of de-escalation in 2018, and it continues to advance its strategic weapons program.”
Davidson said, “Until the nuclear situation is resolved on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea will remain our most immediate threat.”
Davidson’s assessment comes after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un showed a willingness to negotiate denuclearization during President Donald Trump’s term, before negotiations fell through in 2019. Trump and Kim reportedly disagreed on whether the U.S. should reverse sanctions against North Korea and Kim imposed a 2019 year-end deadline for the U.S. to come up with an agreeable denuclearization deal, after which North Korea would cease talks with the U.S.
After failing to reach an agreement by the end of 2019, North Korea resumed tests for its ballistic missile program in 2020.
In January, ahead of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Kim said North Korea called the United States “our arch-enemy” and vowed to bring the U.S. “to its knees.”
Davidson referred to Kim’s January remarks in his statement on Tuesday.
Davidson also wrote, “Pyongyang maintains a diverse and growing missile inventory, and North Korea unveiled several new ballistic systems during military parades in late 2020 and early 2021, including two SLBMs and an ICBM,” referring to submarine-launched ballistic missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“Pyongyang’s missile research and development efforts, coupled with its ongoing pursuit of nuclear material and technology, are consistent with the regime’s stated objective of being able to strike the U.S. Homeland,” Davidson added.
Beyond nuclear weapons, Davidson noted North Korea’s conventional weapons also pose a threat to neighboring countries, such as South Korea.
Davidson noted North Korea did show some moderation in the latter half of 2020 as it focused on flood recovery and its COVID-19 response, but “Nonetheless, it continues to develop new – and upgrade existing – conventional weapons systems that threaten our regional partners’ safety and security,” he said.
Despite years of sanctions against North Korea, Davidson noted the country has sustained itself through illicit transfers of refined petroleum, “through illicit ship-to-ship transfers and unreported direct deliveries by foreign-flagged vessels.” Davidson said North Korea’s sanctions evasion strategy is largely reliant on Chinese shipping networks, and said many of the illicit fuel transfers have taken place in or near Chinese territorial waters.
During the Tuesday hearing, Davidson also addressed a range of other security concerns in the Indo-Pacific region, including China’s “vast” disinformation machine. He said China employs around a million people to spread propaganda that undermines U.S. interests and “creates doubt amongst our allies and partners in the reliability of the United States.”