By DONNA CASSATA and RICHARD LARDNER
U.S. Army soldiers prepare for an exercise during their annual military drills with South Korea in Yeoncheon, South Korea, near the border with North Korea, Tuesday, April 9, 2013. North Korea has unleashed a flurry of war threats and provocations over U.N. sanctions for its last nuclear test, and over the ongoing U.S.-South Korean military drills, which the allies say are routine but Pyongyang says is a preparation for a northward invasion. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
WASHINGTON (AP) — The top U.S. military commander in the Pacific said Tuesday that North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles represents a clear and direct threat to the United States and its allies in the region.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Kim Jong Un, the country’s young and still relatively untested new leader, has used the past year to consolidate his power.
Locklear concurred with the assessment that the tension between North Korea and the West was the worst since the end of the Korean War in the early 1950s. The admiral insisted that the U.S. military and its allies would be ready if North Korea tried to strike.
Locklear said North Korea is keeping a large percentage of its combat forces along the demilitarized zone with South Korea, a position that allows North Korea to threaten U.S. and South Korean civilian and military personnel.
“The continued advancement of the North’s nuclear and missile programs, its conventional force posture, and its willingness to resort to asymmetric actions as a tool of coercive diplomacy creates an environment marked by the potential for miscalculation that, and controlled escalation, could result from another North Korean provocative action,” Locklear told the panel.
Increasingly bellicose rhetoric has come from Pyongyang and its leader, with North Korea urging foreign companies and tourists to leave South Korea and warning that the countries are on the verge of a nuclear war.
During an exchange with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Locklear said he was confident that U.S. missile defenses are capable of intercepting a ballistic missile launched by North Korea. But Locklear said a decision on whether such a missile should be intercepted should be based on where the missile is aimed and expected to land.
The admiral said that assessment can be made very quickly.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told Locklear that the North Korean regime’s threats “appear to exceed its capabilities, and its use of what capabilities it has against the U.S. or our allies seems highly unlikely and would be completely contrary to the regime’s primary goal of survival.
“Nonetheless, its words and actions are not without consequences,” Levin said.
The Democrat did question the Obama administration’s decision to delay a long-scheduled operational test of an intercontinental ballistic missile amid the North Korea rhetoric.
Locklear said he agreed with the decision to delay the test through a tenuous time.
“We have demonstrated to the people of the region, demonstrated to the leadership of North Korea, our ability and willingness to defend our nation, our people, our allies and our forward deployed forces,” Locklear said, citing several of the other steps the U.S. military has taken in recent weeks.
The U.S. has moved two of the Navy’s missile-defense ships closer to the Korean peninsula, and a land-based system is being deployed to the Pacific territory of Guam. The U.S. also called attention to the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercise that included a practice run over South Korea by B-2 stealth bombers.
Levin mentioned that President Barack Obama recently talked to China’s new president, Xi Jinping, about the U.S. efforts to deal with North Korea. Locklear said he has not had similar conversations with his Chinese counterparts.