(ATTN: UPDATES with reports of remarks from the director of national intelligence, minor edits in paras 2, 10-13; ADDS photo)
By Byun Duk-kun
WASHINGTON, May 10 (Yonhap) -- North Korea is expected to continue advancing its nuclear and missile capabilities this year to increase its leverage in any potential negotiations with the United States, the top U.S. military intelligence official said Tuesday.
The remarks by Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, come amid speculation that Pyongyang may conduct a nuclear test as early as this month.
"We expect North Korea to continue its nuclear, missile, and military modernization efforts in 2022 as it emphasizes bolstering its strategic deterrence and countering the military capabilities of the U.S.–South Korean alliance," Berrier said in a global threat assessment report submitted to the Senate armed services committee before a budget hearing.
"Kim Jong-un will likely use these developments to try to increase his leverage in any potential negotiations with the United States," he added, referring to the North Korean leader by his name.
North Korea has already staged 15 rounds of missile launches this year, while also ending its self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile testing after more than four years by firing an intercontinental ballistic missile in March.
Berrier noted the North may conduct additional weapons tests, including a nuclear test.
"To demonstrate North Korean strength and resolve, leadership could consider further missile testing of various ballistic and cruise missiles, conduct a cyberattack, or test another nuclear device," he said.
A state department spokesperson said last week that the North may be preparing to conduct a nuclear test as early as this month.
Pyongyang has conducted six nuclear tests, with the last test held in September 2017.
Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, said the North continues to produce fissile materials, including uranium, for nuclear weapons.
"Fissile material production continues in North Korea, which maintains its plutonium program and probably is expanding it uranium enrichment program," she said in her own threat assessment report submitted to the Senate committee.
"Kim remains strongly committed to expanding the country's nuclear weapons arsenal and continuing ballistic missile research and development," she added.
Berrier noted the North will seek to justify its actions by blaming the U.S. and South Korea.
"North Korea will probably continue to justify its actions by using U.S. policy, South Korea's military modernization, and combined U.S.–South Korean military exercises as pretext to normalize North Korea's military advancements," he said in his report.
The North periodically accuses U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises of being war rehearsals. Seoul and Washington have repeatedly denied the accusation, saying the exercises are strictly defensive in nature and that they harbor no hostile intent toward Pyongyang.
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