The United States is capable of intercepting a North Korean missile, should it launch one in the coming days, but may choose not to if the projected trajectory shows it is not a threat, a top U.S. military commander told Congress on Tuesday.
Admiral Samuel Locklear, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific region, said the U.S. military believed North Korea had moved to its east coast an unspecified number of Musudan missiles, with a range of roughly 3,000-3,500 miles.
An Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters "our working assumption is that there are two missiles that they may be prepared to launch" — which was in line with South Korean media reports.
Locklear said the Musudan's range was far enough to put Guam, a U.S. territory, at risk but not Hawaii or the U.S. mainland.
"If the missile was in defense of the homeland, I would certainly recommend that action (of intercepting it). And if it was defense of our allies, I would recommend that action," Locklear told a Senate hearing.
Asked whether he would recommend shooting down any missile fired from North Korea, regardless of its trajectory, Locklear said: "I would not recommend that."
The comments by Locklear came amid intense speculation that Pyongyang may be preparing for a missile test -—something the White House says would not be a surprise — or another provocation that could trigger a military response from Seoul.
The Pentagon has in recent weeks announced changes to its posture to respond to the North Korean threat, including the positioning of two, Aegis-class guided-missile destroyers in the western Pacific and deployment of a missile defense system to Guam.
Any U.S. or South Korea response to a North Korean provocation has the potential to further escalate tensions on the peninsula, just as North Korea intensifies threats of imminent conflict. Pyongyang warned to foreigners on Tuesday to evacuate South Korea to avoid being dragged into "thermonuclear war".
NO 'OFF-RAMP' TO TENSIONS
The North's latest message belied an atmosphere free of anxiety in the South Korean capital, where the city center was bustling with traffic and offices operated normally.
Despite the heated rhetoric, Pyongyang has shown no sign of preparing its 1.2 million-strong army for war, indicating the threat could be aimed partly at bolstering Kim Jong-un, 30, the third in his family to lead the country.
Locklear said the U.S. military believed the younger Kim was more unpredictable than his father or grandfather, who always appeared to factor into their cycle of period provocations "an off-ramp of how to get out of it."
"And it's not clear to me that he has thought through how to get out of it. And so, this is what makes this scenario, I think, particularly challenging," Locklear said.
Lawmakers at the hearing were extremely critical of China, the North's major benefactor, and Locklear acknowledged that the United States wanted Beijing to do more to influence the North to dial-back its aggressive posture.
Asked at one point in the hearing whether China was a friend or foe, Locklear responded: "Neither."
"I consider them at this point in time, someone we have to develop a strategic partnership with to manage competition between two world powers," he said.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by Jackie Frank