Pacific commander: US ‘ready today’ to respond to any North Korean aggression

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.

But Pacific commander Adm. Samuel Locklear said the U.S. would be “ready today” to respond to North Korean aggression and has the capability to shoot down North Korean missiles that threaten U.S. territory or allied countries.

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Locklear’s testimony took place as North Korea is continuing to escalate its threats against the U.S. and South Korea.

Pyongyang told foreigners on Tuesday they should leave South Korea before a nuclear war begins, and North Korea is reportedly planning a missile test this week.

The White House criticized North Korea for the latest provocations, while the State Department said it was not telling Americans to heed Pyongyang’s advice.

“North Korea's statement advising foreigners to make plans to evacuate Seoul is more unhelpful rhetoric that serves only to escalate tensions," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday.

“There's no solid information to suggest imminent threat to U.S. citizens or facilities in the Republic of Korea, so the U.S. embassy has not changed its security posture,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Tuesday.

At the Senate Armed Services hearing Tuesday, senators pressed Locklear to elaborate on how the U.S. military would respond to aggression from Pyongyang.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked Locklear if the U.S. military had “the capability to intercept a missile if the North Koreans launch within the next several days.”

“We do,” Locklear responded.

McCain then asked whether Locklear would recommend that U.S. military shoot down any North Korean missile launched.

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 our homeland,” Locklear said.

McCain said that he had not seen a period of greater tension in the region since the Korean War. Locklear said he agreed that he could not recall a tenser time.

Amid North Korean threats to attack both South Korea and U.S. soil with nuclear weapons, 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. The Pentagon has also deployed additional missile defense capabilities to Guam and will add 14 new ground-based interceptors in Alaska.

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 tensions in recent days, in part by delaying a ballistic missile test.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (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 Inhofe (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.

Many senators homed in on the role of China in the conflict, with some suggesting that China could put a stop to Pyongyang’s provocations if it wished.

“Their behavior is not only provocative, it’s obscene,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said, noting China’s theft of American intellectual property through cyberattacks and support of Syria’s President Bashar Assad.

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

Both the White House and Locklear said Tuesday they were encouraged by comments from Chinese leaders that indicated they have concerns about the North Korean rhetoric.

Carney said Tuesday that the United States "welcomes the comments by the new Chinese president."

"We've been very open about the fact that we're having these conversations and our call on the Chinese to use their unique influence with North Korea on this matter," he said.

Many experts say the likelihood that war actually breaks out between North and South Korea remains low, despite the threatening rhetoric from Pyongyang.

Locklear said that the cycle of provocation has long been a successful strategy for North Korea, but said that the youngest Kim remains more unpredictable.

“His father and his grandfather, as far as I could see, always figured into their provocation cycle an off-ramp of how to get out of it,” Locklear said. “And it's not clear to me that he has thought through how to get out of it.”

 —Justin Sink and Julian Pecquet contributed