SEOUL -- The top U.S. military commander in South Korea told U.S. lawmakers Tuesday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is more dangerous and unpredictable than his father.
In testimony that came within hours of North Korea's latest missile launches, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who assumed leadership of U.S. Forces Korea six months ago, said that of the dozens of missiles fired by the North since late February, many were fired in a demonstration to members of his regime, as well as the U.S. and South Korea. It shows that the North has the capability to launch missiles "on short notice, with very little warning," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington.
The North launched two midrange ballistic missiles early Wednesday on the Korean Peninsula. Both missiles fell into the ocean between the peninsula and Japan without incident. The series of missile launches, which began on Feb. 21, have coincided with annual U.S.-South Korean spring training drills, among the largest exercises the two allies hold each year. The exercises typically prompt angry criticism from the North, and last spring Pyongyang launched an intense period of threats of war that raised tensions on the peninsula to their highest level in years.
But despite the ongoing missile launches, Pyongyang has remained relatively quiet during this year's exercises, possibly due to pressure from neighboring China. When asked about Beijing's willingness to push the North to return to denuclearization talks, Scaparrotti said, "I believe we've seen some results of China's pressure on North Korea ... in the muted rhetoric of Kim Jong Un in the past several months, particularly after the assassination of his uncle."
Kim ordered the execution of his uncle and close adviser, Jang Song Thaek, in December, in a move that surprised analysts and led to speculation that Kim might be trying to control internal challenges to his power. A Department of Defense report released this month said the purge was "the most significant step to date in Kim's establishment of his authority, eliminating arguably the most influential senior Party official remaining from his father's era."
"The sudden and brutal purge sends a strong message to regime elites that the formation of factions or potential challenges to Kim Jong Un will not be tolerated," the annual report to Congress said.
While China does exert influence over Kim, Scaparrotti told lawmakers that the Korean dictator is "clearly" in charge.
"From what I've seen, he also is an independent actor and will tend to go his own way, which (I) believe has frustrated China as well," he said.
The U.S. Pacific commander, Adm. Samuel Locklear, who also testified, said his top priority in the Asia-Pacific region is maintaining stability on the Korean Peninsula and containing the Kim regime.
On that front, Scaparrotti said that replacing U-2 manned surveillance aircraft with Global Hawk drones -- a cost-saving measure contained in the 2015 defense budget -- could hurt the command's ability to gather intelligence quickly.
"In my particular case as the operational commander in Korea, the U-2 provides some unique capability that at least presently the Global Hawk … won't provide, and it will be a loss in intelligence that's very important to our indicators and warnings," he said. "As they look at the retirement of the U-2, we have to look at the capabilities of the Global Hawk, and perhaps building those capabilities, so that I don't have that intelligence loss."
Scaparrotti also discussed the consolidation of most U.S. troops in the country to a location south of Seoul.
Initial troop movements to Camp Humphreys -- the Pyeongtaek base that is the centerpiece of a massive relocation plan for USFK -- have yet to begin, but should take place this year, he said.
Most forces will move in 2016, though the project faces slight delays.
"We're on track, fundamentally," he said. "We're not exactly on the timeline, primarily because of construction, about a three months' lag on that. But I think – I think we'll be OK," he said.
The relocation will see most troops stationed in and north of Seoul moved to hubs in Pyeongtaek and Daegu. After the relocation, the number of U.S. forces stationed in the Humphreys area will increase from 9,000 to about 24,000. About 2,700 command-sponsored families would be stationed in the area, he said.
U.S. forces were initially supposed to move to Humphreys in 2008, but the project was delayed to 2012 and again to 2016.
Scaparrotti's testimony came as the U.S. and South Korea prepare to kick off the annual Ssang Young drill, which he described as "one of the most comprehensive amphibious exercises in the world."
The drill is part of the ongoing Foal Eagle field exercise, which ends next month. Officials have said this year's Ssang Young, which runs Thursday through April 7, will be larger than in previous years.
Nearly 10,000 U.S. troops will participate in Ssang Yong, along with about 4,500 South Korean troops.
Locklear told lawmakers the U.S. military does not have the ability to carry out a contested amphibious operation in the region during a crisis.