By Patricia Zengerle and Doina Chiacu

 

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. director of national intelligence warned on Tuesday that time was running out for the United States to act on the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

 

North Korea presents "a potentially existential" threat to the United States and is likely to conduct more weapons tests this year, Dan Coats said at the Senate Intelligence Committee's annual hearing on "Worldwide Threats."

 

"Decision time is becoming ever closer in terms of how we respond to this," Coats said. "Our goal is a peaceful settlement. We are using maximum pressure on North Korea in various ways."

 

The warning came despite an easing of tensions on the Korean peninsular after talks resumed between North and South Korea, and as the North participated in the Winter Olympics hosted by the South.

 

While the Trump administration has stressed its preference for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over North Korea's development of nuclear weapons that are capable of hitting the United States, it has warned that all options on are on the table, including military ones, to prevent this.

Last month, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said North Korea could be only "a handful of months" away from being able to make a nuclear attack on the United States.

Pompeo told Tuesday's hearing that despite the North-South talks, there was "no indication there's any strategic change" in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's desire to remain a nuclear threat to the United States.

Talk of preventative military strikes has eased since the Koreas resumed dialogue last month and Washington has appeared to endorse deeper post-Olympics engagement between the two Koreas that could lead to U.S.-North Korean talks.

But it has also stressed the need to ramp up sanctions to force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Last year, North Korea conducted dozens of missile launches and its sixth and largest nuclear test, in defiance of U.N. sanctions. However, it has now been more than two months since its last missile test in late November.

Coats said North Korea's repeated statements that nuclear weapons were the basis for its survival suggest government leaders there "do not intend to negotiate them away."

"In the wake of accelerated missile testing since 2016, North Korea is likely to press ahead with more tests in 2018, and its Foreign Minister said that Kim (Jong Un) may be considering conducting an atmospheric nuclear test over the Pacific Ocean," he said.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein asked whether U.S. intelligence has looked into what it might take to bring North Korea to the negotiating table, but Pompeo declined to discuss the subject during a public hearing.

Feinstein said she had participated in a classified briefing recently on North Korea and described it as "difficult and harsh."

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Patricia Zengerle and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Andrea Ricci)