North Korea eyes new round of missile tests, says US commander

U.S. forces have received "indications" that a ballistic missile test could take place as soon as Dec. 17, Pacific Command Adm. Samuel Locklear told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday. 

The test would be in commemmoration of the one-year anniversary of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il's death, according to Lockear.

The drill, according to Locklear, is a clear sign of the country's efforts "to demonstrate to the world" it is an emerging nuclear power in the Pacific region. 

Pyongyang maintains the looming missile test is a peaceful effort designed to test the country's ability to launch communications satellites into orbit, an argument routinely used by North Korean officials to mask its nuclear weapon development efforts. 

That said, U.S. officials at Pacific Command have intelligence and surveillance assets in place to monitor the launch, should Pyongyang follow through with the weapons drill, he said. Locklear declined to go into specifics regarding what U.S. assets are in place within the region to track the test launch. 

However, any ballistic missile test conducted by North Korea will undoubtedly have a "very destabilizing effect" on the region and American national security interests in the Pacific, and be a "potential violation" of U.N. mandates banning the country from any nuclear weapons work, the four-star admiral noted.

The last missile test conducted by North Korea was in April 13. The last long-range missile prototype tested by Pyongyang in 2006, dubbed Taepodong 2, crashed into the Pacific just over a half-hour into its flight. 

While the new missile blew to pieces shortly after takeoff, the launch was rebuked by the United States and its allies as another instance of North Korea attempting to roil regional tensions in the Pacific. 

At the time, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the drills served to accelerate a "dangerous cycle" of provocation set by Pyongyang in the Pacific region. 

Shortly after the April test, members of the United Nations Security Council approved a new White House position statement strongly condemning the country's continued efforts to build an intercontinental ballistic missile. 

The new presidential statement made clear that any future testing and development of a long-range missile system, "no matter whether it is called a satellite or a space launch vehicle," is a "serious violation" of standing U.N. mandates, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said at the time.

Locklear could not comment on whether this new round of testing will be more successful than North Korea's April attempt, noting the short nine-month window between the last missile test and the one scheduled for later this month. 

That said, weapons developers in Pyongyang have "progressively gained" more advanced missile technologies in the time since the April tests, according to the Pacific Command chief.  

However, Locklear reiterated the turnaround time between the two missile shots was likely too short for North Korean weapons specialists to achieve any significant advances in the upcoming tests.