WASHINGTON – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's long-term goal is to reunify the divided Korean Peninsula under his totalitarian government, the senior U.S. Navy officer overseeing military operations in the Pacific told lawmakers Wednesday.
Adm. Harry Harris Jr. said during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee there's a prevailing view that Kim needs a nuclear arsenal to safeguard his regime. But Harris says Kim is after much more.
"I think we are self-limiting if we view North Korea's nuclear ambitions as solely a means to safeguard his regime," said Harris, who leads U.S. Pacific Command. "I do think that he is after reunification under a single communist system. So he's after what his grandfather failed to do and his father failed to do and he's on a path to achieve what he feels is his natural place."
Kim's father and grandfather were the late North Korean rulers Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.
Harris also said North Korea's advancing nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs put "him in a position to blackmail the South and other countries in the region and us."
The testimony from Harris, an officer who's been in uniform for nearly 40 years and speaks bluntly, came as athletes from North Korea are participating in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The games led to a remarkable moment of reconciliation between the rivals but their decades-long animosities could easily erupt again after the Olympics.
Harris called North Korea's Olympic delegation, which included Kim's sister Kim Yo Jong, a "charm offensive." He said it behooves the U.S. and South Korea "not to be charmed" by Pyongyang and to consider North Korea "for the regime it is and to deal with it on the basis of fact, not charm."
Top U.S. intelligence officials on Tuesday delivered their latest threat assessment, telling the Senate Intelligence Committee that the risk of conflict with North Korea is higher today than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Their wide-ranging intelligence report also said North Korea will likely conduct more missile tests this year and not negotiate away its nuclear capabilities.
Vice President Mike Pence, who was in Pyeongchang for the start of the Olympics, said the U.S. is open for talks without preconditions with North Korea, a subtle shift in White House policy. But diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang won't start unless Kim Jong Un wants it to.
Harris insisted that any future talks with Pyongyang "must be focused on achieving a complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula." But he didn't advocate a change in U.S. policy, telling the committee that the State Department's campaign to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear program is "what we should be doing."
The admiral said China, which is North Korea's main trading partner, "can and should do more" as part of the pressure campaign. Harris also criticized Russia's "limited contributions."
He said China and Russia host 75 percent of the roughly 80,000 North Korean "guest workers" employed abroad. These workers are allowed to leave the country but must send most of what they earn back to the government's coffers in Pyongyang. The U.S. has been urging countries not to host the workers as part of a broader effort to cut off the cash North Korea needs to finance its nuclear program.
Harris has led U.S. Pacific Command since May 2015. President Donald Trump announced last week that he was nominating Harris to be U.S. ambassador to Australia. The post requires Senate confirmation.
Contact Richard Lardner on Twitter at http://twitter.com/rplardner