US admiral says North Korea crisis 'at worst point'
The senior US Navy officer overseeing military operations in the Pacific has said the crisis with North Korea is at the worst point he has ever seen.
Admiral Harry Harris Jr, commander of US Pacific Command, declined to compare the situation to the Cuban Missile Crisis, but told a US senate committee: "It's real."
Admiral Harris said he has no doubt North Korea intends to develop a nuclear missile capable of striking the United States.
He said there is uncertainty within US intelligence agencies over how far along North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes are, but added that it is not a matter of if, but when.
He also said he doubts the North Korean people will rise up to topple their leader, Kim Jong Un.
The Trump administration has declared that all options, including a targeted military strike, are on the table to block North Korea from carrying out threats against the United States and its allies in the region.
However, a pre-emptive attack is unlikely, US officials have said, and the administration is pursuing a strategy of putting pressure on Pyongyang with assistance from China, North Korea's main trading partner and the country's economic lifeline.
With international support, the Trump administration said it wants to exert a "burst" of economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea that yields results within months to push the communist government to change course from developing nuclear weapons.
Susan Thornton, the acting top US diplomat for East Asia, said there is debate about whether Pyongyang is willing to give up its weapons programmes. She said the US wants "to test that hypothesis to the maximum extent we can" for a peaceful resolution.
Signalling that military action remains possible, Ms Thornton told an event hosted by the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, a right-leaning Washington think tank, that the administration treats North Korea as its primary security challenge and is serious when it says "all options are on the table".
She said: "We are not seeking regime change and our preference is to resolve this problem peacefully, but we are not leaving anything off the table."
After weeks of unusually blunt military threats, Donald Trump's national security team held a briefing on North Korea's advancing nuclear capabilities which served to damp down talk of military action amid alarm over Pyongyang's atomic and missile testing.
A joint statement from the agency heads made no specific mention of military options, though it said the US would defend itself and its allies.
Admiral Harris told the committee that the financial sanctions imposed against the North Korean regime by the US and other countries have done nothing to slow North Korea's quest for weapons of mass destruction.
He also said he has been sceptical of China's willingness to exert its influence over North Korea and convince Pyongyang to pull back from the brink.
But Admiral Harris said he has become "cautiously optimistic" following recent talks between Mr Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping.
"It's only been a month or so and it's too early to tell," Admiral Harris said. "I wouldn't bet my farm on it."
He added that North Korea's pursuit of an atomic arsenal and the long-range missiles to deliver nuclear weapons comes at the expense of the North Korean people, who are isolated and forced to live with a lifeless economy.
"In confronting the North Korean threat, it is critical that the US be guided by a strong sense of resolve both publicly and privately in order to bring Kim Jong-Un to his senses, not his knees," Admiral Harris said.
Despite the depravity, the admiral said it is a "hollow hope" to think that North Koreans will rise up and topple Kim Jong Un. He said the leader is revered and considered a "god king" by many North Koreans.
In a show of military might, the US has sent a massive amount of American weaponry to the region.
A group of American warships led by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is in striking range of North Korea "if the president were to call on it", Admiral Harris told the committee.
A US missile defence system called Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence is being installed in South Korea.
Admiral Harris said he has adequate forces to "fight tonight" against North Korea, if that were to become necessary. But he also said he lacks all the attack submarines he needs and has no capable defence against the thousands of artillery pieces North Korea has assembled near the Demilitarised Zone separating North and South Korea.
There are about 28,500 US military personnel serving in South Korea.
"We do not have those kinds of weapons that can counter those rockets once they're launched," Admiral Harris said in response to a question from the committee's Republican chairman, Senator John McCain of Arizona.