U.S. military and intelligence officials simply do not have the knowledge or resources to accurately determine whether Pyongyang is flexing its military might for show, or truly preparing for a regional conflict, according to former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Panetta, who led DOD and CIA in the Obama White House, said that lack of visibility has only gotten worse with Kim Jung Un taking power after the death of his father and former dictator Kim Jong Il in 2011.
North Korea has engaged in "periods of provocation" to force the U.S. and its allies in the Pacific to the negotiating table in the past, Panetta said, in the hopes of alleviating the sanctions that have crippled the country's economy.
But Kim's comments and actions in recent weeks have gone much further than those past efforts, he said.
The problem facing American leaders, he noted, is that its unclear why Pyongyang is taking such a hard line now.
"That's the bottom line -- we really don't know what his motivation is and we really don't know what his intentions are," Panetta said. "That's the greatest concern of all."
That uncertainty has only ratcheted up tensions on the Korean peninsula, as Washington and Pyongyang continue their game of military one-upmanship that American allies in the region fear will end in conflict.
Most recently, NBC News reported Monday afternoon that the Navy is shifting an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer, the USS Fitzgerald, into the Pacific toward the peninsula, where it was also deployed in December 2012.
The destroyer is equipped with an Aegis anti-ballistic missile system.
The Fitzgerald's deployment comes after U.S. forces began flying B-2 and B-52 heavy bombers, which are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, in the skies above South Korea.
In response, North Korea has put its long-range artillery and rocket units on full alert and shuttering a military hotline with South Korea. Earlier this month, Pyongyang officially terminated the 1953 armistice with South Korea that ended the Korean War.
Prior to that, North Korea has repeatedly violated United Nations sanctions and roiled the international community with its missile and nuclear tests. Kim has also threatened to launch nuclear attacks against both South Korea and the United States.
However, the White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Monday attempted to downplay the growing crisis in the Pacific, saying there were not any “significant changes to the mobilization of forces” in North Korea.
"We haven't seen action to back up the rhetoric," he added, once again criticizing the "provocative" statements from North Korea and warning they will only further isolate the country.