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Top admiral: US can intercept a North Korean missile

While testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Adm. Samuel Locklear, Commander of the US military's Pacific Command, says he's confident missile defenses are capable of intercepting a ballistic missile launched by North Korea towards the U.S. — or any of its allies.

If North Korea decides to launch a missile, the United States is ready to respond and is capable of intercepting it, a top U.S. military commander told Congress on Tuesday.

The Commander of U.S. Pacific Command also said that he cannot recollect a more tense time between the U.S., South Korea, and North Korea since the end of the Korean War.

Responding to Sen. John McCain's statement that he doesn't know a time of greater tension in the decades since the war, Admiral Sam Locklear said that "I would agree that in my recollection I don't know a greater time."

Locklear told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. is ready to respond to a North Korean missile launch or other threat.

"I am satisfied that we are ready today, yes," Locklear said.

South Korean official have said since Sunday that a missile launch by the North could come as early as Wednesday but U.S. military and intelligence officials have seen no movement or preparations that would indicate that a launch of the Musudan missiles from the launch site on North Korea's east coast is imminent.

Locklear acknowledged that the U.S. believes North Korea has placed a Musadan missile on that coast, adding the missile has a range of roughly 1,800 to 2,100 miles, with a minimum range of about 400 miles.

He said it does not threaten the mainland United States or Hawaii, but it could put Guam at risk. He added that the U.S. has "capability in place" to protect Guam.

Asked specifically whether U.S. forces can intercept a missile from North Korea, Locklear said, "I believe we have a credible ability to defend the homeland, to defend Hawaii, defend Guam, to defend our forward-deployed forces and defend our allies."

He went on to say that the U.S. could intercept a missile even if it happens in the next several days.

Locklear said he would not recommend intercepting a missile, however, until the U.S. is certain what the target is.

"If the missile was in defense of the homeland, I would certainly recommend that action. And if it was defense of our allies, I would recommend that action," he said.

He added that they will know "pretty quickly" where the missile is going and "what we need to do about it."

Locklear also acknowledged that China, the North's only diplomatic and financial ally, could play a key role in stopping the rhetoric from North Korea.

Asked whether the Chinese government has done enough to restrain North Korea, Locklear said, "I think they could do more."

The admiral's comments come as world leaders have shown alarm at the prospects of a conflict involving a reclusive state that claims to be developing a nuclear weapon.

South Koreans expect Pyongyang to launch a medium-range missile near the border as North Korea warned foreigners in South Korea to be prepared to evacuate. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

Addressing North Korea's latest saber-rattling that warned foreigners to leave South Korea, the White House on Tuesday called the rhetoric "unhelpful" and "provocative."

President Barack Obama called North Korea's nuclear test in February "highly provocative." Russian President Vladimir Putin has said hostilities could create a cataclysm worse than the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. 

Yet in South Korea, where most of the harsh rhetoric is aimed, people numbed by years of threats are calmly going about their business. Restaurants and hotels are full in Seoul - a mere 30 miles from 700,000 North Korean soldiers -- and no emergency supplies such as gas mask or drugs are being distributed.

Admiral Locklear meanwhile referred to North Korean leader Kim Jung Un as the "impetuous young leader" who "continues to focus on provocation rather than on his own people.”

Locklear said that Kim Jung Un is more unpredictable that his father or grandfather who "always figured into their provocation cycle an off ramp of how to get out of it."

"It's not clear to me that he has thought through how to get out of it. And so, this is what makes this scenario, I think, particularly challenging," Locklear said.

As to any potential missile launch, U.S. officials say that they firmly believe that missiles would be aimed out to open sea, not at South Korea, Japan or Guam.

And despite the taunts from North Korea, which include a call for foreigners to leave the South, the U.S. State Department hasn’t issued any new security warnings to Americans in South Korea or planning to travel there.

At the State dept. briefing today, Spokesperson Patrick Ventrell said that no new security warnings are being issued to Americans in South Korea or planning to travel to South Korea based on recent taunts from North Korea.

"There's no specific information to suggest imminent threat to U.S. citizens or facilities in the Republic of Korea,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said on Tuesday. “So the U.S. embassy has not changed its security posture. We have not recommended that U.S. citizens who reside in or plan to visit the Republic of Korea take special security precautions at this time."

NBC News' Jim Maceda and Jeff Black contributed to this report.


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