US preparing for North Korea's 'final step'

Mike Pompeo
CIA Director Mike Pompeo said the United States has to act as if North Korea is on the verge of being able to strike it with a missile and act accordingly -- and that President Donald Trump is ready to do so.

"From a US policy perspective, we ought to behave as if we are on the cusp of them achieving that objective," Pompeo said Thursday at a security forum held by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "They are so far along in that, it's now a matter of thinking about how do you stop the final step."

"Whether it happens on Tuesday or a month from Tuesday, we're in a time where the President has concluded that we have a global effort to ensure that [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un does not obtain that capacity," Pompeo continued.

Pompeo is among a number of former officials who have been signaling the increased possibility of a slide into military confrontation with North Korea over its refusal to back down from its nuclear program.

The CIA chief spoke at the forum shortly before national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who also said the President wasn't prepared to accept a nuclear Pyongyang.

The Trump administration comments came a day after former CIA Director John Brennan put the chances of military conflict with North Korea as high as 20% to 25%.

The isolated Asian nation conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September, claiming it had detonated a miniaturized hydrogen bomb that could be mounted on a missile. It's also been steadily working on its missile capabilities, firing 22 missiles during 15 tests from February to mid-September.

Even as other countries have urged caution, dialogue and reciprocal confidence-building measures, Trump has belittled the North Korean leader as "rocket man," dismissed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's efforts to broker a diplomatic solution, and hinted that he is ready to take military action.

Asked at Thursday's event about the threat posed by North Korea, McMaster said that Trump will not accept a nuclear North Korea that threatens the US, putting the administration in a "race" to resolve the increasingly tense standoff before it devolves into a military confrontation.

"He's not going to accept this regime threatening the United States with nuclear weapons," McMaster said. "There are those who would say, well, why not accept and deter. Well, accept and deter is unacceptable."

"So this puts us in a situation where we are in a race to resolve this short of military action," McMaster said. "Everybody knows it. We all know it. ... Our allies and partners know it. China knows it. Russia knows it."

Brennan, speaking Wednesday night at Fordham University School of Law, stressed that, "there really is no good military solution to this issue."

"A 1 in 4, 1 in 5 chance"

"The prospects for military conflict on the Korean Peninsula are greater than they have been in several decades," he said. "I don't think it's likely or probable, but if it's a one in four, one in five chance, that's too high." Asked if that's the rating he'd give for the chances of conflict, he said, "Yeah, I guess I would."

Brennan sketched out a scenario in which, "some kind of limited military engagement that would result in some deaths, that could then quickly trigger some retaliatory strikes that could escalate." On top of that "conventional scenario of escalation," he reminded the crowd that North Korea has finely honed cyber capabilities.

"So I think we have to be mindful here that there are a number of scenarios here that could lead to an escalation that we really need to be trying to avoid," Brennan said. Trump isn't helping on that score, he said.

"You have two leaders of the two major protagonist countries that are hurling these broadsides back and forth, and they have a lot of personal political face involved in it," he said.

"I don't agree that the tack that Mr. Trump has taken is a constructive and productive one," Brennan said, calling the references to "Rocket Man" and other insults "irresponsible."

McMaster praised Trump's handling of the crisis, saying that the President's leadership had created the possibility of an "unprecedented level of international cooperation on the issue."

He also praised Tillerson's efforts to increase international pressure on North Korea, which has moved some countries to cut diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, expel its ambassadors and in some cases, ban North Korean guest workers. North Korea, meanwhile, has said it won't be willing to talk to the US until it ensures it has missile and nuclear capabilities.

~CNN's Zachary Cohen contributed to this report
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