Pacific commander: North Korea poses ‘clear and direct threat’ to the US

North Korea poses a “clear and direct threat” to the United States, the chief of the U.S. Pacific Command told a Senate panel Tuesday.

Pacific commander Adm. Samuel Locklear said Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests are a threat to U.S. national security and regional peace and stability.

He noted that North Korea is keeping a significant percentage of combat forces in the demilitarized zone, and said the U.S. and South Korean forces are "ready today" to respond should the Kim Jong Un regime stage an attack.

Senators pressed Locklear to elaborate on how the U.S. military would respond to aggression from Pyongyang.

Sen. John McCainJohn McCainMcCain having 'conversations' with Dems on Gorsuch nomination Live coverage: Senate intel holds first public Russia hearing McCain responds to North Korean criticism to calling Kim Jong-un 'crazy fat kid' MORE (R-Ariz.) asked Locklear on whether he would recommend that U.S. military shoot down any North Korean missile.

Locklear said he would not agree with intercepting a missile without considering what the target was. He said that the U.S. military would be able to quickly determine where a North Korean missile was aimed and where it was heading.

“I’m confident we’d be able to make that decision in defense of our allies and homeland,” Locklear said.

Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee comes amid heightened tensions with North Korea, which Locklear said were greater than any time he could recall.

The U.S. has flown stealth B-2 bombers and displayed F-22 fighters in the Korean Peninsula as part of joint training exercises with South Korea, and deployed additional missile defense capabilities to Guam as a counter to potential North Korean aggression.

Gen. James Thurman, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, was scheduled to testify at Tuesday’s hearing, but decided he should remain in Seoul as a “prudent” measure.

The U.S. has made an effort to ratchet down the tensions in recent days, in part by delaying a ballistic missile test.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl LevinCarl LevinSenate about to enter 'nuclear option' death spiral Devin Nunes has jeopardized the oversight role of Congress Ted Cruz wants to destroy the Senate as we know it MORE (D-Mich.) said he was “puzzled” by that delay, and asked Locklear whether he agreed with the decision. The admiral said he did.

Levin said he thought it was “highly unlikely” that North Korea would engage militarily because the regime’s primary goal is survival, not waging war.

“The North Korean regime’s rhetorical threats appear to exceed its capabilities,” Levin said Tuesday.

Some Republicans on the panel said North Korea's belligerence reflects a broader failure of President Obama's foreign policy.

Sen. James InhofeJames InhofeOptimism rising for infrastructure deal Repeal of Obama drilling rule stalls in the Senate GOP senator: EPA 'brainwashing our kids' MORE (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Armed Services panel, said the “recent belligerent actions of North Korea highlight the stark disparity between the Obama administration’s triumphant declaration that the tide of war is receding and reality.” 

“Old threats are being replaced by new and more dangerous ones,” Inhofe said.

Locklear said that China played a key role in restraining North Korea, although he added that Beijing wasn’t the only influencer.

The admiral said China could be doing more to help restrain Pyongyang.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamOvernight Finance: Dems seek probe of acting SEC chief | Defense hawks say they won't back short-term funding | Senate seen as start point for Trump infrastructure plan | Dems want more money for IRS Overnight Defense: Pentagon considers more troops for Afghanistan | McCain, Graham won't back short-term funding | GOP defends Trump rules of engagement McCain and Graham: We won't back short-term government funding bill MORE (R-S.C.) criticized China’s role in the recent North Korean tensions, saying that Beijing “could stop this if they chose.”

“Their behavior is not only provocative, it’s obscene,” Graham said, noting China’s theft of American intellectual property through cyberattacks and support of Syria’s Bashar Assad.

“There’s a growing frustration here in Congress on the way they behave,” he said.

Locklear told Graham that China supported North Korea in part because the country was a “buffer” against the U.S., gaining a stronger foothold in the Pacific region.

He said that statements in recent days from Chinese leaders show they do have concerns about continued provocations and disruptions in the region, which he said was an indication that the Chinese government was engaging.

— This story was updated at 11:26 a.m.