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​Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coates, left, and DIA Director Army Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Staff photo by Steve Hirsch.

Two top US intelligence officials Tuesday expressed skepticism over recent reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is willing to negotiate with Washington over getting rid of its nuclear weapons.

The New York Times reported from Seoul that South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office said North Korea had “clearly stated its willingness to denuclearize,” and that North Korea “made it clear that it would have no reason to keep nuclear weapons if the military threat to the North was eliminated and its security guaranteed.”

During testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said he expected North Korea would be the “most volatile and confrontational” weapons of mass destruction threat to the country this year. Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, during the same hearing struck a similar chord, calling North Korea “a critical threat to the United States and our allies in Northeast Asia.” Despite UN sanctions, he said, Kim “shows no interest in walking away from his nuclear or ballistic missile programs.”

“Hope springs eternal,” Coats said, “but we need to learn a lot more relative to these talks, and we will.”

He said he was “quite skeptical” about the reports, and said Washington has “drawn a very clear line,” and that North Korea must agree “to not possess nuclear capability.”

“Until that happens, we cannot have an agreement with them,” he said.

Ashley agreed, saying he hasn’t seen anything to make him believe Kim is “about to make a hard right turn,” although he acknowledged it is possible.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who chaired the hearing, suggested the development might be a response to what he called a tougher stance by the Trump administration compared to the Obama administration, and asked if Ashley shared his “somewhat optimistic view of what happened.” 

“Senator, right now, I don't share your optimism. That's kind of a show-me, and so we'll see how this plays out,” Ashley responded.

Ashley also played down the apparent threat posed by a recent statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia had a new generation of invincible nuclear weapons. He said given the fact that there is an election approaching this month in Russia, Putin’s statement was “really for consumption of the domestic audience,” but that he would say “that we’re aware of the systems that he spoke about, they are in the research-and-development phase.”