WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific reassured Congress on Tuesday that the U.S. military could intercept any missile launched by North Korea and aimed at American territory or its East Asian allies.
Adm. Samuel Locklear’s briefing to senators came amid growing concern that North Korea is about to test a rocket — some observers suggest as early as Wednesday — after weeks of bellicose threats.
“We have a credible ability to defend the homeland, to defend Hawaii, to defend Guam, to defend our forward deployed forces, and to defend our allies,” Locklear told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
He said Pentagon agencies could quickly recognize a missile’s trajectory and knock it out of the sky with land-based or ship-based anti-missile batteries if it posed a threat.
U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials have been preparing for days for the possible launch of an intermediate-range missile. Although they maintain that most of North Korea’s threats have been bluster, they acknowledge that North Korea’s actions are unpredictable so they have deployed anti-missile defenses.
North Korea has moved an intermediate-range Musudun missile to its east coast, possibly in preparation for launch, and has warned at various times that its missiles could hit South Korea, Japan, Guam or the U.S. mainland. The Musudun is estimated by Jane’s, a defense analysis company, to have a range of 1,550 to 2,500 miles, which would allow it to reach Guam.
North Korea sought to further raise anxieties by having the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, a government agency, urge “all foreign organizations, companies and tourists to work out measures for evacuation” because the Korean peninsula was “inching closer to thermonuclear war.”
A Japanese newspaper, Sankei, reported that North Korea has warned foreign embassies that it planned to launch a missile on Wednesday over Japan into the Pacific Ocean.
The United States and its allies have been trying to carefully calibrate their public message, urging calm while emphasizing that they are prepared for any attack. They believe North Korea’s goals are to try to damage the South Korean economy by spreading panic and seeking to force the U.S. back to the negotiating table with concessions.
U.S. officials denounced the North’s “provocative rhetoric” and insisted there was no reason for tourists to change plans.
“We’re not discouraging U.S. citizens from traveling to South Korea or encouraging them to take any special travel precautions,” said State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell in Washington.
At the same time, Locklear told senators that North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, seemed more unpredictable than his father or grandfather, who ruled the Stalinist state before him. He appears to not know how to wind down the cycle of threatening comments that began about a month ago, Locklear said.
“It’s not clear to me he has thought through how to get out of it,” Locklear said.
Another senior U.S. military officer, who asked to remain unidentified, said U.S. plans to fire at the North Korean missile carried some risk because a failure to hit the target would undermine confidence in U.S. missile defense.
Meanwhile, South Korean President Park Geun-hye told a Cabinet meeting that she didn’t intend to yield to North Korean pressure.
“How long are we going to repeat this vicious cycle where the North Koreans create tensions and we give them compromises and aid?” she asked.
There is widespread doubt in the South that North Korea would make good on its threats.
“If North Korea fires at Seoul and other regions in South Korea, that will mean all-out war,” said Park Syung-je, a military analyst with the Seoul-based Asia Strategy Institute. “While (Un) is young, senior military generals surrounding him are old. They won’t be so reckless to launch a total war, as that will be a suicide mission.”
Japanese officials in Tokyo moved Patriot anti-missile batteries into position, saying they would use them to shoot down any missiles or missile debris if necessary, Japanese news organizations reported.
As they try to manage the threat from North Korea, U.S. officials are also attempting to restrain South Korea from responding to a provocation in a way that could ignite a regional war.
The U.S. and South Korea recently agreed to a “counter-provocation” plan under which they would respond proportionately to a North Korean attack but avoid escalating to heavier weapons or additional targets.
“The idea would be to get it under control as far as possible,” Locklear told the Senate panel. “The best thing we as militaries can do is to ... get back to peace, so that diplomacy can work.”
Yet South Korean officials, many of whom have expressed regret that they didn’t respond more forcefully to recent provocations from the North, have declared that the South might respond aggressively to any North Korean attack, including striking North Korean command and control centers.