North Korea ‘unlikely’ to give up nukes, top US intelligence chief says despite Donald Trump’s optimism

North Korea is “unlikely” to give up its nuclear weapons program, America’s most senior intelligence chief has said, in stark contrast to Donald Trump’s optimistic comments on securing a breakthrough. 

Dan Coats, the US director of national intelligence, said that North Korea’s leaders see keeping their nuclear arsenal as crucial to “regime survival”. 

Mr Coats also warned there was evidence that Kim Jong-un’s regime was taking actions “inconsistent” with its declared support for denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. 

The remarks, which came during an appearance by six US intelligence chiefs before the Senate Intelligence Committee, jar with the US president’s public views on the stand-off. 

Mr Trump has repeatedly played up the prospect of North Korea denuclearising since he met with Kim, the country’s leader, during a historic summit in Singapore in June 2018. 

The US president tweeted shortly after that meeting that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea”. On another occasion he joked that him and Kim “fell in love” with each other. 

Mr Coats is a former Republican senator who serves in Mr Trump’s cabinet. The role he holds was created after the September 11 attacks and co-ordinates America’s 17 different intelligence agencies. 

In his prepared opening remarks on North Korea for a hearing about worldwide threats, Mr Coats begun by playing up the areas of progress in the relationship. 

He said: “The regime has halted its provocative behavior related to its WMD program. North Korea has not conducted any nuclear-capable missile or nuclear tests in more than a year and it has dismantled some of its nuclear infrastructure.

"As well, Kim Jong-un continues to demonstrate openness to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula."

But Mr Coats went on: “Having said that, we currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.

"Our assessment is bolstered by our observations of some activity that is inconsistent with full denuclearisation .”

The assessment that North Korean leaders do not actually want to give up their nuclear weapons program challenges a central tenant of the Trump administration’s stance for talks. 

Mr Trump has repeatedly talked up the chance of a breakthrough and has touted Kim’s support for denuclearisation – though at times has made clear he does not know where talks will end. 

Critics have warned that the North Korean regime is not really willing to give up its weapons, despite its leadership’s public statements. Mr Trump and Kim are due to hold a second summit in late February. A location is yet to be announced.

During their appearance on Capitol Hill, the intelligence chiefs made a number of stark comments that underlined the scale of threats facing America and other nations. 

Mr Coats singled out the “big four”  – Russia, China, Iran and North Korea – as he warned a “toxic mix” of competitors, regional powers, failed states and non-state groups were threatening America.

He said that more than a 1,000 Isil fighters remain in Syria and Iraq and that the terror group is plotting resurgence. 

The remark comes as Mr Trump withdraws America’s 2,000 troops from Syria after declaring Isil had been defeated – a decision that triggered a fierce backlash from allies and the resignation of defence secretary Jim Mattis. 

Mr Coats noted that China and Russia’s relationship is now closer than for “many decades”, an alliance that would have significant impacts on geopolitics if it continues to solidify. 

He also warned that the 2020 US presidential election was viewed by adversaries as “an opportunity to advance their interest", raising the prospect of more foreign interference. He said protecting US elections was a “top priority”.