April 2, 2013— -- Gen. James Thurman, the top U.S. commander in South Korea, said that in his two years on the job he has never seen things as tense as they are right now, telling ABC News the situation on the Korean peninsula is "volatile" and "dangerous."
Thurman said in his exclusive interview with ABC News that his " job is to prevent war," but that his greatest fear is a "miscalculation" that causes "a kinetic provocation." In military parlance, kinetic refers to combat.
Thurman said North Korea's recent rhetoric has made the situation on the Korean peninsula "a dangerous period," but he added, "I think we're managing it quite well because on this side of the line we're very calm. And we're confident."
Thurman commands the 28,500 American military forces based in South Korea and also serves as the commander of United Nations Command.
The interview was conducted in one of the buildings at Panmunjon along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) where South Korean and North Korean military forces face off just steps away from each other.
Thurman believes the "tough talk" from Kim Jong Un, North Korea's young leader, is him "trying to play to his internal audience." However, Thurman said that more importantly Kim is also trying "to intimidate the South Koreans and intimidate the region And we're not going to let that happen."
RELATED: North Korea Says It Will Restart Nuclear FacilitiesThe general thinks South Korea is serious when it says it will respond militarily to any offensive action by North Korea.
"I believe they will because we have a right to protect ourselves. And again we're not going to let the North Koreans intimidate us," said Thurman.
Thurman said with the North Korean rhetoric at such a high level his greatest fear is "a miscalculation. An impulsive decision that causes a kinetic provocation."
The general said he has to take North Korea's rhetoric seriously. Asked if he thought they were empty threats Thurman said "No, I don't think that they are. We've got to take every threat seriously."
With so little known about Kim Jong Un, Thurman said he is not sure what his true intentions are :because he's kind of reckless right now with his talk and all that."
North Korea's latest provocation came today when it announced that it was restarting the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon that it had closed down in 2007. The plant could be used to produce additional plutonium for its nuclear weapons program.
While he described North Korea's missiles as their largest threat, Thurman pointed across the DMZ and noted "there's 14,000 tubes of artillery just across this line beyond that far mountain range over there." That artillery poses a direct threat to Seoul, the South Korean capital which is located just 27 miles from the DMZ.
But if North Korea launches an offensive operation against South Korea Thurman said "I think we got to be ready to go."
"We will defend ourselves. We don't want to respond to some type of deceptive move into a rapid escalation into a conflict ... My job is to prevent war."
Thurman said the North Korean ballistic missile threat have the range to potentially hit the United States though "they haven't demonstrated the full capabilities that they can do an intercontinental ballistic missile as far as the delivery... I think they have a long way to go in my assessment."
"I think as we look at the missile portfolio North Korea has, we protect the homeland number one and make sure all our assets are available so we can provide protection if necessary." Thurman would not discuss what those protection options might be though "everything is on the table."
On Monday the U.S. Navy confirmed that it had sent the guided missile destroyer, USS John S McCain, to the waters off of South Korea. The ship carries SM-3 missiles capable of shooting down North Korean ballistic missiles. And today the Pentagon confirmed that an additional destroyer, the USS Decatur, was ordered to remain in the Pacific region.
RELATED: North Korea Says It Is in 'State of War' with South Korea
Thurman explained that the ships' movements, as well as the public acknowledgement that long range American bombers had conducted training missions over South Korea, were about sending a message of deterrence to North Korea.
"Defending the Republic of Korea against aggression is all about deterrence. And I think we've got good deterrence," said Thurman. "I'm confident as the commander here in what we need to do should hostilities break out."
While North Korea's rhetoric has raised tensions Thurman believes the situation will "calm down. I'm confident it will. I'm optimistic about it."
He pointed to the practical reason that North Korea routinely uses its military to work the fields during the farming season "so that they can have a good harvest."SEE MORE: North Korea Puts Artillery Forces on High Alert, Threatens US