Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., on Tuesday questioned the Pentagon’s decision to postpone an upcoming intercontinental ballistic missile test amid growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, where Pyongyang warned that war is likely and urged foreigners in South Korea to evacuate.
Pentagon officials, who have flexed the U.S. military’s might in the region over the past several weeks, last week decided to delay the Minuteman III test at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base because of concerns it could be misconstrued by North Korea. The United States recently deployed F-22 stealth fighters and B-2 nuclear capable bombers to the region as part of a military exercise with South Korea. The military is also moving a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to Guam.
“The administration has responded to North Korea’s bluster, not with hot rhetoric of our own, but with firm and confident resolve with our partners and countries in the region who want stability and calm, always looking forward to the time when the oppressive North Korea regime will come to an end,” Levin said at a hearing. “I am puzzled by the delay of the long-scheduled ICBM operational test following the North Korean rhetorical threats.”
Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told the panel that he agreed with the decision to postpone the test, which he said he assumes was made to allow officials to assess the effects of the military’s recent moves in the region.
“Through this period of the last few weeks, we have demonstrated to the people of the region, we have demonstrated hopefully to the leadership of North Korea, we have demonstrated to our own people back here, our ability and our willingness to defend our nation, to defend our people, to defend our allies and to defend our forward deployed forces,” Locklear told the panel.
In response to questions from Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Locklear said he believes that tensions with North Korea are greater now than they have been at any time since the Korean War.
The United States, Locklear added, has a “credible ability” to defend the United States, Guam, forward-deployed forces and allies from a missile launched by North Korea. He said he would recommend the United States intercept missiles only to defend U.S. territory or allies.
Locklear said China would play a “key part” in restraining North Korea and acknowledged the country could do more in that regard.
He said statements by Chinese leaders in recent days against provocations on its doorstep may not be as direct as the United States would like but are an indication that the Chinese government is engaged on the issue.
“They will consider their national interests, just like we do, and they will move to protect those national interests when the time comes,” Locklear said.
Levin received assurances from Locklear that he would “explore the possibility” of talking directly with his counterpart in China to make clear that the United States wants the country to help end North Korea’s provocations. Locklear said any military-to-military conversations would have to be coordinated with other communications occurring between the two governments.