By Gopal Ratnam and David Lerman
WASHINGTON — Kim Jong Un's "primary objective is to consolidate and affirm his power" as North Korea's dictator since succeeding his late father, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said Thursday.
"Much of the rhetoric of late is designed for both internal and external audiences," Clapper told the House intelligence committee. Kim's goal "first and foremost is to show he's firmly in control in North Korea," Clapper said.
North Korea has repeatedly said the region is on the brink of war since its February nuclear test prompted tighter United Nations sanctions and the United States and South Korea began annual joint drills last month. Kim's regime has threatened to wage nuclear war against the U.S. and South Korea.
Despite the threats, North Korea currently lacks the ability to hit the U.S. with a ballistic missile, said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
"Right now, I don't think we believe they have that capacity," Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee.
Clapper, presenting the U.S. intelligence community's annual global threat assessment, told House lawmakers that the untested Kim seems "more impetuous and not as inhibited as his father." Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, died in December 2011.
Unlike his father's extended "grooming period" of more than a decade, Kim was being prepared for only two to three years so "we don't have a big track record on the new leader, not much history," Clapper said.
Clapper said Kim is "underestimating the Chinese frustration and discomfiture with his behavior." China, North Korea's neighbor and chief economic supporter, joined in the latest round of UN economic sanctions against the regime.
To the extent "that anyone has remaining leverage — because we have used up most of our sanctions options — it's clearly from the Chinese," Clapper said.
In one sign of a possible moderation in tone, North Korea called the closing of an industrial park jointly run with South Korea temporary.
While blaming the South for this week's suspension of operations at the Gaeseong complex north of the border, the move is "temporary," the official Korean Central News Agency said, citing an unidentified government spokesman. South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae called for dialogue between the two sides to resolve the issue.
A North Korean organization Thursday reiterated that the country is on a war footing and is ready to attack, and that its warheads are already programmed with target coordinates.
"Just pressing the button will be enough to turn the strongholds of the enemies into the sea of fire," the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement carried by KCNA.
The possibility of a North Korean missile test is "very high" and "may materialize anytime from now," South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se said Wednesday. South Korean and U.S. forces upgraded their joint surveillance "Watchcon" status by one level to monitor for an imminent missile firing, Yonhap reported, citing unnamed military officials.
North Korea may fire a missile anytime until around April 15, the 101st anniversary of state founder Kim Il Sung's birth, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said Thursday. Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, is the grandfather of the current leader.