WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence experts expect North Korea's new young leader Kim Jong Un to continue Pyongyang's policy of attempting to export its weapons systems.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday that the North's export of ballistic missiles and associated materials to countries including Iran and Syria illustrated the reach of its proliferation activities.

He also cited North Korea's assistance to Syria in building a nuclear reactor, destroyed by Israel in 2007.

"We don't expect Kim Jong Un, North Korea's new young leader, to change Pyongyang's policy of attempting to export most of its weapons systems," Clapper told a hearing on worldwide threats.

Clapper said it was too early to assess the extent of Kim's authority after his father Kim Jong Il died Dec. 17. That took the hereditary communist regime into a third generation but left uncertainty over whether the untested new leader could consolidate control. North Korea has a history of aggression against its southern neighbour, an important U.S. ally.

Clapper said senior regime leaders in North Korea probably would remain cohesive at least in the near term to prevent instability and protect their interests.

The Democratic chairwoman of the committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said a recent classified intelligence briefing on the threat North Korea poses "was quite sobering."

"In North Korea there's now a 28-year-old dictator ruling over the country's cache of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles which should concern us deeply," she said.

North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests since 2006 and unveiled a uranium enrichment facility in late 2010 that could provide it another means of making fissile material for a weapon. It also has developed a ballistic missile that could potentially strike the United States. The North, however, also would need to be able to miniaturize a nuclear device to mount it on a missile.

Clapper said Pyongyang probably would not attempt to use nuclear weapons against the U.S. unless its regime was on the verge of military defeat and risked "irretrievable loss of control."

Speaking in South Korea Tuesday, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia expressed "hope in diplomacy" for settling differences with North Korea. Kurt Campbell reassured Seoul that a lasting U.S.-South Korea military presence will back up any talks.

The U.S. retains nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Before Kim Jong Il's death, Washington and Pyongyang appeared close to a reaching a deal on food aid for the impoverished North that could have paved the way to the resumption of six-nation aid-for-nuclear disarmament talks that have been stalled since early 2009.

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