- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The head of the U.S. Pacific Command warned on Wednesday that North Korea directly threatens American interests and allies in the Pacific region, but tempered his dour assessment of the secretive country’s motivations by saying regime change is not the policy of the United States.
“We want to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses, not to his knees,” Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command told the House Armed Services Committee.
But Harris was blunt when it comes to the threat that Kim represents. North Korea “is clearly in a position to threaten Hawaii today” with missiles, he said, calling for the United States to send more submarines and radar systems to Hawaii, and to build missile interceptors there to meet the threats from North Korea and in increasingly powerful China and Russia.
The calls for more hardware came hours before the White House was slated to host the entire U.S. Senate to deliver a classified briefing on the situation, as U.S. ships are conducting drills with the Japanese and Korean navies near the peninsula in a show of force.
Currently, the United States operates missile interceptor sites, designed to shoot down incoming long-range missiles, in Alaska and California but Harris wants Congress to “consider putting interceptors in Hawaii that defend Hawaii directly.”
North Korea has launched a series of ballistic missile tests this year at a record pace, and is on the verge of conducting its sixth nuclear test in the past decade. In particular, Pyongyang has made great strides developing longer-range missiles and in reducing the size of its warheads.
“North Korea vigorously pursued a strategic strike capability in 2016,” Harris said. “Kim’s strategic capabilities are not yet an existential threat to the U.S., but if left unchecked, he will gain the capability to match his rhetoric.”
The Trump administration has answered these tests with increasingly blunt rhetoric, warning Kim that the United States will not allow him to develop the capability to hit the United States with nuclear missiles.
The admiral also took responsibility for the confusion earlier this month as to where the USS Carl Vinson strike group was operating in the Pacific, after his command announced that it was heading toward Korea, when in fact it was thousands of miles away. He said Wednesday that the Vinson is currently in Philippine Sea near Okinawa, in “striking range” of North Korea, and will continue steaming north.
The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet — which is the forward-based part of the U.S. Navy in Japan — announced earlier in the day that the ship was conducting training with the Japanese navy. Several other U.S. destroyers are conducting exercises in the Sea of Japan and near the South Korean coast with the Japanese and South Korean navies, according to statements from the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet and Pacific Command.
Harris also warned about increasing Chinese and Russian capabilities in the Pacific region, saying both countries have dispatched their newest and most advanced classes of submarines to the Pacific, which represent “dramatic improvements” from previous classes of ships.
He said he had only about half the subs he needs for the Pacific, and expressed concern that a shrinking U.S. submarine fleet is eroding long-held advantages over Beijing and Moscow. “The gap between us and the next best is closing,” Harris said.