PACOM Chief: 'Matter of When' North Korea Will Have a Nuke

U.S. Pacific Command Commander Adm. Harry Harris Jr. testifies on Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, April 26, 2017, before a HASC hearing on North Korea. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
U.S. Pacific Command Commander Adm. Harry Harris Jr. testifies on Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, April 26, 2017, before a HASC hearing on North Korea. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The four-star commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific warned members of the Senate not to underestimate what North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un is capable of, saying he expects the rogue leader will soon have the nuclear power of which he boasts.

Appearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday for the second day in a row, Adm. Harry Harris painted a grim picture of North Korea's developing capabilities, saying Kim Jong-Un does not appear to share his predecessors' tendency to back down after a provocation.

"In the past, they've gone to this provocation cycle," Harris said, referring to previous dictators Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, the grandfather and father of North Korea's current ruler. "There's a provocation, there's a negotiation, and there's a concession, peace for a while, and then the cycle starts again. I think Kim Jong-Un has elevated that to a cycle of provocation, provocation, provocation."

It is clear, Harris said, that the dictator is really seeking his own nuclear deterrent, with designs to threaten the United States and shore up his own regime.

Harris' testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee comes amid rising tensions between North Korea and the United States. North Korea has threatened new missile tests -- including, potentially, a sixth nuclear test -- and the Trump White House has responded by amping up rhetoric and deploying shows of force to the Korean peninsula, including the guided-missile submarine Michigan and the Carl Vinson carrier strike group.

While Kim Jong-Un has been known to exaggerate his capabilities, Harris said it is only a matter of time before he has the capability necessary to threaten the United States.

"So it's not a matter of whether, it's a matter of when," said Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican.

"It is clearly a matter of when," Harris responded. "... [Kim Jong-Un's] capability is approaching the line of his rhetoric. When those lines cross, we are then at an inflection point, and we wake up to a new world."

What remains unclear is what efforts will effectively arrest this nuclear collision course. North Korea has been unresponsive to diplomacy and sanctions, and its ally China has so far done little to pressure the country into peace.

"Do you think [the Chinese are] beginning to reshape their calculus in light of North Korea?" asked Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

"I hope so, but it's early days," Harris said.

Graham asked if it is fair to say that North Korea will have a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile able to reach the United States by 2020.

Harris declined to name a timeline, but offered little reassurance.

"It is safe to say they will have one soon, that they will match rhetoric with capabilities," he said. "... Depending on the nuclear weapon, depending on the missile, they could reach the Eastern Seaboard. They could reach us right here in this building."

Harris' testimony comes a day after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats briefed the Senate on the results of a review of North Korean capabilities ordered by President Donald Trump earlier this year.

In a statement released by the Pentagon, the officials said the White House plans to continue to pursue economic sanctions and diplomacy to tighten pressure on North Korea, but remains prepared to use military force to defend the United States and its allies.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at@HopeSeck.

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