The commander of U.S. forces in Korea, who met in Washington this week with South Korean officials, said at a Pentagon press briefing today that they fear “uncontrolled escalation” of the nuclear threat on the peninsula as North Korea continues its weapons program.
“Kim Jong Un remains in control of an isolated, authoritative regime that’s willing to use violence and threats of violence to advance its interests, gain recognition as a nuclear power, and secure the regime’s survival,” Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said.
In recent years, he said, Pyongyang “has focused on development of asymmetric capabilities,” including “several hundred ballistic missiles, one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles, a biological weapons research program, and the world’s largest special operations force, as well as an active cyber-warfare capability.”
North Korea violated UN Security Council resolutions by conducting its third nuclear test last year and “significantly increased their frequency of no-notice ballistic missile launches this year.”
“We are concerned that such events could start a cycle of action and counteraction, leading to an unintended, uncontrolled escalation. This underscores the need for the alliance to work together, to be vigilant and to be ready to act,” Scaparrotti said.
The general said the U.S. and South Korea have been working together to enhance readiness in the areas of “combined and joint command, control, communications, computers and intelligence, an alliance countermissile defense strategy, and the procurement of precision-guided munitions, ballistic missile defense systems, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms.”
Scaparrotti cautioned against reading too much into North Korea’s moves in which they’ve “reached out more,” including sending a representative to the UN or softening rhetoric.
“Right underneath that at the very same timed, they’ve continued apace their development of missile systems, their nuclear systems, other asymmetric means, working very hard at that,” he said. “And then secondly, they’ve picked up what I would term provocative actions in the northwest islands region and also along the DMZ.”
The U.S. believes that Kim dropped out of sight for weeks because of a health issue, but he’s now back “checking construction sites, visiting military units, and probably approaching, you know, a schedule that’s similar to what he had prior to his 30-some days of disappearance.”
“He has a large number of close-range and short-range ballistic missiles, but he’s working on medium, intermediate, intercontinental,” Scaparrotti said. “Most of those missile events were shorter-range. We believe that he’s got to continue to do some of this for just testing and development of these systems. Some of that is done in order to message to us, to the alliance, that he has the capability with mobile ballistic missile systems to move and fire from different areas.”
“One of the things that we’ve seen this year is that he has stressed more realistic training in his — his forces, conventional and his rocket forces. And so we’ve seen some of the training that has been more realistic and it has resulted in, I believe, some of these — the more frequent missile launches.”
Kim is also concentrating on a better developed cyber-warfare program, which “we need to protect ourselves against and be concerned about.”
“They claim they have an intercontinental ballistic missile that’s capable. You know, they paraded something at least a couple of times,” the general continued. “Personally I think that they certainly have had the expertise in the past. They’ve had the right connections, and so I believe have the capability to have miniaturized a device at this point, and they have the technology to potentially actually deliver what they say they have. We have not seen it tested. And I don’t think, as a commander, we can afford the luxury of believing perhaps they haven’t gotten there.”
He said North Korea is believed to have a launcher to accommodate a long-range functioning missile.
Later at the regular press briefing, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was “apprised” of the situation.
“We have no reason here in the Pentagon to doubt General Scaparrotti’s views on this. Certainly, there’s — there’s no question that the North Korean regime continues to try to pursue a nuclear weapons capability and program. There’s no question about that,” Kirby said.
“And we try to monitor that progress as best we can. I think the general was as honest with you as could be. And again, the secretary shares the general’s concerns about their — their attempts to acquire this capability. The secretary agrees with General Scaparrotti that this is a capability that they want. ”
But Kirby also tried to dial back the alarm, stressing the general “didn’t say that they had the capability to put a nuclear weapon on an ICBM.”
“He said he believes they have the capability to miniaturize — to get to that. But they have not moved — we have not seen evidence that they’ve done it. And we’ve not seen certainly any evidence that they’re testing or in development of it,” he said. “So, I think the general was also clear that they’re — that they are a way away — a ways away from developing that capability.”
“…We have no reason to doubt the general’s belief, but as the general also said, he has no facts or evidence to confirm that.”