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 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.
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.