North Korea, if left unchecked, is on an "inevitable" path to obtaining a nuclear-armed missile capable of striking the United States, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart warned on Tuesday, according to Reuters.
U.S. lawmakers pressed Stewart and the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to estimate how far away North Korea was from obtaining an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could reach the United States.
While they declined to offer an estimate, saying that doing so would reveal U.S. knowledge about North Korea's capabilities, Stewart warned the panel the risk was growing.
"If left on its current trajectory the regime will ultimately succeed in fielding a nuclear-armed missile capable of threatening the United States homeland," Stewart was quoted as having said.
"While nearly impossible to predict when this capability will be operational, the North Korean regime is committed and is on a pathway where this capability is inevitable," he added.
North Korea has declared that it could test-launch an ICBM “at any time” from any location set by its leader Kim Jong Un, though it remains unclear whether any of its recent tests have been of an ICBM.
The White House indicated at the beginning of January that the United States has no indication that North Korea's nuclear capabilities have changed.
Experts claim North Korea may have publicly displayed an ICBM during a parade marking the 105th birthday of North Korea's founder.
The UN Security Council is due to meet on Tuesday behind closed doors to discuss North Korea’s latest test of a solid-fuel Pukguksong-2 missile, which defies Security Council resolutions and sanctions. The meeting was called at the request of the United States, Japan and South Korea.
Coats on Tuesday acknowledged gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea and the thinking of its leader Kim.
He cited technological factors complicating U.S. intelligence gathering, including gaps in U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), which rely on assets like spy satellites and drone aircraft.
"We do not have constant, consistent ISR capabilities and so there are gaps, and the North Koreans know about these," Coats said, according to Reuters.
U.S. President Donald Trump has warned that a "major, major conflict" with North Korea is possible over its weapons programs, although U.S. officials say tougher sanctions, not military force, are the preferred option.
Trump's Defense Secretary, James Mattis, said on Friday that any military solution to the North Korea crisis would be "tragic on an unbelievable scale."