Washington: US defenses could intercept a ballistic missile launched by North Korea, the top US military commander in the Pacific said on Tuesday as the relationship between the West and the communist government hit its lowest point since the end of the Korean War.
Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of US 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.
The admiral said Pyongyang`s pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles represents a clear threat to the United States and its allies in the region.
During an exchange with Senator John McCain, Locklear said the US military has the capability to thwart a North Korean strike, but he said a decision on whether a missile should be intercepted should be based on where it is aimed and expected to land.
"I believe we have the ability to defend the homeland, Guam, Hawaii and defend our allies," said Locklear, who added that it wouldn`t take long to determine where a missile would strike.
Locklear concurred with McCain`s assessment that the tension between North Korea and the West was the worst since the end of the Korean War in the early 1950s. But the admiral insisted that the US military and its allies would be ready if North Korea tried to strike.
He said North Korea is keeping a large percentage of its combat forces along the demilitarised zone with South Korea, a position that allows the North to threaten US and South Korean civilian and military personnel.
Locklear told the panel, "The continued advancement of the North`s nuclear and missile programmes, 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. ..."
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.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin told Locklear that the North Korean government`s threats "appear to exceed its capabilities, and its use of what capabilities it has against the US or our allies seems highly unlikely and would be completely contrary to the regime`s primary goal of survival."