North Korea inching toward mobile long-range missile, Locklear says
WASHINGTON — North Korea's military is taking steps to field a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile that could threaten the United States, the head of American forces in the Pacific says.
Although North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hasn't yet deployed such a missile, "he's showing us the signs that he's trying to get there," said Adm. Samuel Locklear, who offered new insight into the steps the isolated nation is taking to field its KN-08 missile.
Locklear discussed North Korean developments in a wide- ranging Bloomberg Government interview Thursday that included the shift of U.S. military assets toward the Asia-Pacific region, relations with Vietnam, the search for the missing Malaysian airliner and China's military modernization.
The missile, which isn't operational yet and is designed to be transported on roads, threatens to change relations between the United States and a nation once feared primarily for its conventional military and fixed long-range intercontinental missiles such as the Taepo-Dong-2, Locklear said.
Locating mobile missiles is more difficult than keeping an eye on fixed launching sites and requires constant surveillance and efforts to distinguish real weapons from mock-ups, he said.
"Road-mobile systems" decrease the "amount of time you have to deal with it, particularly if you want to deal with it before they launch it," Locklear said, referring to the potential for a preemptive strike on a known missile site. Asked how close North Korea is to fielding an operational road-mobile missile, Locklear said it's "hard for us to get an exact assessment of that."
The U.S. has only seen what may be dummy versions of the missiles, along with increased activity around the sites where they would be housed, he said.
"So we watch it very, very carefully, and it's kind of just on an upward trajectory of the things that over time can give us concern," he said.
North Korea's conventional military is in decline, Locklear said. Locklear also said the nation's increasing isolation and poverty are causes for concern.
"It is, in my view — among all the security challenges in the world — it's the most dangerous if it goes poorly," he said.
In North Korea "you've got a country" that has put "pictures of mushroom clouds over New York City and Washington," Locklear said.
Locklear said he's concerned that the world "is so tired and worn" out over North Korea's cycles of provoking the U.S. and its allies with missile launches and other military actions that it becomes "anesthetized."
North Korea's missile development, along with concern over Iranian weapons programs, is the principle rationale for the $34 billion U.S. ground-based missile defense program managed by Chicago-based Boeing, which in June had its first successful interception test since December 2008.
Locklear said fielding the missile defense "against now- emerging road-mobile systems that can threaten our homeland will be a priority — guaranteed."
Greg Thielmann, senior fellow at the Washington-based Arms Control Association and a former State Department intelligence official who follows North Korean missile developments, said "the only thing we can be reasonably confident of at the moment is that the KN-08 ICBM is not ready for deployment."
Evidence has emerged this year that North Korea has tested rocket engines for the KN-08's first and second stages, Thielmann said in an email. "Big questions remain" about the "nature and imminence of the threat" it poses and "are the North Koreans yet capable of miniaturizing a warhead" for the missile, which he said is doubtful.
The Air Force's National Air and Space Intelligence Center said in its latest public report published last year that the missile, also known as the Hwasong-13, is estimated to have a maximum range of at least 5,500 kilometers (3,420 miles), far enough to reach Alaska but not the Pacific Northwest.
On other matters, Locklear said it may be time to consider partially lifting a ban on lethal aid to Vietnam, as U.S. relations gradually improve.
He described China's military modernization as natural, while expressing concern over its "transparency" and the potential for miscalculation among military forces in the East and South China Seas as Asia's largest economy increasingly exerts its influence.
A Chinese nuclear-powered submarine anchored in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, on Sept. 15, the first such vessel to visit the Indian Ocean nation, according to the state-run Sri Lanka News.
While the U.S. is focused on the threat posed by Islamic State extremists in the Middle East, Locklear said the military offensive in Iraq and Syria hasn't affected efforts to shift more military resources toward the Asia-Pacific region.
"I'm not seeing the huge impact on my capabilities in Asia-Pacific, based on where we are today," he said. "What we have said we were going to do in Asia-Pacific, we have done."
Locklear, whose geographic command includes the Indian Ocean, also said there's no progress in the hunt for the missing Malaysian airliner that disappeared in March with more than 200 passengers aboard.
"It was a needle in a haystack," he said. "We know a large part of where it's not."