North Korea's ballistic missile threats towards the United States may one day match its rhetoric, the top U.S. military commander in the Pacific told a Congressional panel, and to ensure defenses are at their best, he suggested placing ground-based missile interceptors in Hawaii.
Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), also told the House Armed Services Committee that he is "encouraged" by China's recent efforts to influence North Korean behavior and he believes that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un "has noticed a change is afoot with regard to China."
Harris called defending the U.S. homeland his "top priority."
In light of that, he said, "I must assume that the Kim Jong Un's nuclear claims are true, I know his aspirations certainly are."
Harris noted "a mismatch” between North Korea's long range missile and nuclear capabilities and Kim Jong Un's threatening rhetoric towards other countries in the region and the United States.
"I can’t read his mind, all I can do is understand what he says," he added.
"With every test, Kim Jong Un moves closer to his stated goal of a preemptive nuclear strike capability against American cities and he's not afraid to fail in public," said Harris.
Over the past year North Korea's missile program has apparently progressed, despite some spectacular launch failures involving intermediate range mobile launched missiles.
While ground-based missile interceptors at U.S. bases in Alaska and California provide enough coverage to defend the U.S. mainland from a potential North Korean missile strike, Harris believes they might not be enough to fully defend Hawaii in the future.
The PACOM commander told the committee that North Korea is "clearly in a position to threaten Hawaii today."
"I believe that our ballistic missile architecture is sufficient to protect Hawaii today, but it can be overwhelmed," Harris said. "Somewhere, we would have to make a decision about which missiles to take out and that's a hard decision."
"I have suggested that we consider putting interceptors in Hawaii that defend Hawaii directly," he said. "We need more interceptors."
More defensive radars would also be necessary for the state, Harris said.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea will be operational "in the coming days," he told the committee. Components for the system arrived in South Korea in early March and on Tuesday they were deployed.
The system's deployment is controversial in South Korea, where it has become an issue in the upcoming Presidential elections.
The deployment has also drawn major criticism from China that sees the anti-missile system's long-range radar capability being used to track China's own missile systems.
Despite the friction with China over THAAD, Harris has been "encouraged" by China's recent contacts with North Korea to try to influence its behavior.
"China is doing things," he noted without providing details.
"I think we're in a good place," said Harris. "I'm reasonably optimistic now that China is having an influence and they're working in the right direction with regards to North Korea thanks to the efforts by our president and theirs."
"We’ll just have to see how this goes," Harris said. "I’m encouraged and I believe KJU (Kim Jong Un) has noticed a change is afoot with regard to China.”
Harris pointed out that China can use its economic leverage with North Korea since 80 percent of the North Korean economy is based on interactions with China. "I believe that’s a significant lever China could employ against North Korea," he said.
Harris also took responsibility for the mixed messaging over the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson’s announced deployment to the Korean peninsula earlier this month.
"That’s my fault on the confusion, and I’ll take the hit for it," said Harris. "I made the decision to pull the Carl Vinson out of Singapore, truncate the exercise that it was going to do south of Singapore, cancel its port visit to Australia and then proceed north."
A Navy press release issued on April 8 seemed to indicate that the aircraft carrier would be sent north to the Korean peninsula after a port visit to Singapore. But in fact the carrier and other supporting ships did not head north until almost 10 days later after it completed a scheduled exercise with the Australian Navy.
"Where I failed, was to communicate that adequately to the press and media," Harris told the Committee. "So that is all on me."
"But we’ve done exactly that," said Harris, adding that the carrier is east of Okinawa, Japan, in the Philippine Sea, "in striking range, in power-projection range of North Korea if called upon to that." He said the carrier is expected to move north in a few days.
Harris also called the guided missile submarine USS Michigan's port visit to Busan, South Korea a "show of solidarity" with that country -- as well as a "show of force" should North Korea consider aggression against South Korea.