U.S. plans to counter threats from North Korea have been increasingly complicated by the erratic and irrational behavior of the new leader in Pyongyang, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command said Thursday.
Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, the key commander in the U.S. re-balance of forces to the Pacific, said the bombastic rhetoric coming from Kim Jong-un "makes me wonder if he is always in the rational decision-making mode or not."
"I think the young leader -- to me, it's very difficult to determine" how to respond, Locklear said. U.S. policy has not and will not change from the demand for the total de-nuclearization of the peninsula, Locklear said, "but the way ahead with the current leader is not clear to me."
Under Kim, who succeeded his father Kim Jong-il in December 2011, North Korea has pledged to increase its stockpile of nuclear weapons and threatened more nuclear tests.
An editorial Wednesday in Rodong Sinmun, the "Workers Newspaper" in North Korea, said the North's nuclear weapons serve "as an all-powerful treasured sword common to the nation to put an end to the U.S. nuclear threat and blackmail and defend peace and security of the nation."
Locklear's comments on the mental stability of Kim were believed to be the first in public from the high command, but the view is widely shared in private in the Pentagon and at the White House.
In recent weeks, the "Supreme Leader," believed to be 30 or 31 and the world's youngest head of state, has executed his uncle and chief mentor, Jang Sung-taek, and leveled threats of nuclear attack against the U.S. and South Korea.
At the same time, Kim made room on his schedule to hang out with the former NBA star Dennis Rodman.
On Wednesday, South Korea's Human Rights Commission released a report charging that about 200,000 political prisoners are being held in concentration camps in North Korea, South Korea's Chosun-Ilbo newspaper reported.
Locklear said U.S. forces would remain vigilant on the North Korea threat, but he cautioned against attaching significance to the recent deployment of an Army mechanized unit to South Korea.
"It was not prompted by any particular change in the tactical or strategic environment," Locklear said.
Locklear spoke at a Pentagon briefing at which he expressed concerns about the growing animosity between Japan and China, and the recent incident in which Chinese warships passed dangerously close across the bow of the U.S. missile cruiser Cowpens in the South China Sea.
Japan and China are engaged in a long-running dispute over the sovereignty of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, and tensions were exacerbated by the recent visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to a Tokyo war shrine at which 14 convicted war criminals from World War II are honored.
Locklear said he worried about the "risk of miscalculation" in the ship movements by Japan and China around the disputed islets.
In the Cowpens incident, Locklear said that the Chinese navy acted in an "unprofessional" manner in an area where the Liaoning, China's first aircraft carrier, was conducting exercises.
China failed to put out proper notifications of the exercises, and "we have to better at being able to communicate with each other," Locklear said.
Despite the potential for conflict with China, Locklear said "I would give a passing grade for the past year" to the military-to-military relationship with Beijing. He added that "it's yet to be determined how it will play out" as the U.S. carries out the Pacific pivot of troops and assets to the region to maintain blue-water supremacy.
"They're going to have to work hard to get past the issues" involved in the territorial disputes with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, Locklear said of the Chinese.