WASHINGTON - U.S. defenses could intercept a ballistic missile launched by North Korea if it decides to strike, the top American military commander in the Pacific said Tuesday, as the relationship between the West and the communist government hit its lowest ebb since the end of the Korean War.
Amid increasingly combative rhetoric from Pyongyang, Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles represents a clear threat to the United States and its allies in the region.
The admiral said Kim Jong Un, the country's young and still relatively untested new leader, remains unpredictable after using the past year to consolidate his power.
But Locklear told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he was confident that the U.S. military can thwart North Korea if it chooses to act. He made clear that any U.S. decision would be contingent on where the missile is headed, information that the U.S. could ascertain fairly quickly.
"Do we have the capability to intercept a missile if the North Koreans launch within the next several days?" Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asked the admiral.
"We do," Locklear answered.
He said North Korea is keeping a large percentage of its combat forces along the demilitarized zone with South Korea, a position that allows the North to threaten U.S. and South Korean civilian and military personnel.
McCain said the saber-rattling of today struck him as the greatest tension between North Korea, South Korea and the U.S. since the end of the Korean War in the early 1950s.
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.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney brushed off the North's declaration that nuclear war was imminent as "more unhelpful rhetoric" and part of a pattern of combative statements and behavior that Pyongyang's leadership has demonstrated for years. He said the U.S. was working with Seoul and Tokyo on the issue.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told Locklear that the North Korean government'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."