South Koreans arrive at the customs office near Panmunjom after leaving… (Lee Jin-man, Associated…)
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 America's 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 missile — 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.
Locklear said Pentagon agencies could quickly recognize a missile's trajectory and knock it out of the sky with land- or ship-based antimissile 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 the actions of the regime in Pyongyang are unpredictable, so they have deployed antimissile defenses.
North Korea has moved an intermediate-range Musudan 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 Musudan is estimated by Jane's, a defense analysis firm, to have a range of 1,550 to 2,500 miles, which would allow it to reach Guam.
Pyongyang sought to further increase anxiety 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 Pyongyang had warned foreign embassies that it planned to launch a missile 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 damage the South Korean economy by spreading panic and to force the United States 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 alter their plans.
"We're not discouraging U.S. citizens from traveling to South Korea or encouraging them to take any special travel precautions," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in Washington.
At the same time, Adm. Locklear told the 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 escalatory cycle that began about a month ago, Locklear said.
"It's not clear to me he has thought through how to get out of it," he said.
Another senior U.S. military officer, who asked to remain unidentified, said the U.S. plan to fire at a 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 the North will 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 antimissile batteries into position, saying they would use them to shoot down any missiles or missile debris if necessary, Japanese news organizations reported.
The batteries were deployed at a Tokyo military base, Camp Asaka, and another installation in Chiba prefecture. Other Patriot units will be moved into position on the island of Okinawa sooner than had been planned in response to the North Korean threats, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper 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 by striking North Korean command and control centers.
Bruce W. Bennett, a defense specialist at Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, said such a response "would probably worry the White House." But he noted that the United States, which has long urged Seoul to do more for its own defense, is in the process of shifting the military lead role from U.S. officers to South Koreans in 2015.
"The South Koreans have a whole lot more autonomy now," he said.
Special correspondent Choi reported from Seoul.
Times staff writer David S. Cloud in Washington contributed to this report.