Clapper: North Korea is 'toughest intelligence target' for United States

U.S. intelligence agencies have "reasonably good insight" into the North Korean regime, but are still struggling to gain inroads into the country's senior political and military leadership, according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. 

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"I ... have to say that North Korea, of course, is now and always has been one of the, if not the toughest intelligence targets," Clapper told members of the House intelligence committee on Thursday. 

"I think we have a reasonably good insight into what's going on," he said, noting that insight is far from perfect. 

Clapper's assessment falls in line with comments by former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. 

Earlier this month, Panetta suggested Washington is essentially flying blind in predicting whether North Korea's recent aggressiveness is setting the stage for war or just another case of saber rattling to ease economic sanctions imposed by the international community.

"We don't have as much insight as we should, with regards to the inner workings of what happens in North Korea," Panetta said in an interview with MSNBC. 

U.S. military and intelligence officials simply do not have the knowledge or resources to accurately determine whether Pyongyang is flexing its military might for show, or truly preparing for a regional conflict, Panetta added. 

That said, the biggest hurdle facing the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community is getting a read on North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and his unpredictable actions against the U.S. and its allies in the Pacific, according to Clapper. 

"There's not much history there," Clapper said of the North Korean leader. "We do not have good detail on ... the inner sanctum and what is his long-term objectives [are]."

Kim quickly assumed control of the country in 2011 after the death of his father and former dictator Kim Jong Il. 

Kim's rapid rise to power in Pyongyang, compared to his father, left intelligence officials little to go on in terms of gauging what kind of threat he posed to American interests in the region, according to Clapper. 

"He didn't have the grooming period, which only ran about two or three years, unlike his father who had about 10 or 15 years of grooming prior to his ascension to the senior leadership role," the intelligence chief told the House panel. 

As a result, U.S. intelligence is having a difficult time figuring out whether Kim is willing to follow though on the myriad threats issued by the regime in recent weeks. 

North Korea has routinely prodded the international community with threats of military action to force the U.S. and its allies in the Pacific to the negotiating table.

But Kim's comments and actions in recent weeks have gone much further than those past attempts at provocation. 

Despite its limited visibility into Kim's inner circle, Clapper is confident much of the young dictator's bellicose rhetoric is geared toward solidifying his standing within the country. 

"A lot of what he's doing is both for internal domestic consumption as well as external consumption," Clapper said. "I'm not sure he has [an option] other than to prove his position" in Pyongyang.