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Top admiral worries North Korea crisis could escalate 'pretty quickly'

In congressional testimony, the head of US Pacific Command said tensions stoked by North Korea mean that one miscalculation could lead to 'significant combat activity from the North.'

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / April 9, 2013

US Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear waits to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the US Pacific Command and US Forces Korea in review of the Defense authorization request for fiscal year 2014 in Washington Tuesday.

Gary Cameron/Reuters

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North Korea is a “clear and direct threat” to the United States, according to the top US military officer in the region, who adds that – even in a decades-long cyclical relationship of threats followed by cool down periods – he can’t recall “a greater time” of tension with North Korea.

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The comment by came in congressional testimony Tuesday by Adm. Samuel Locklear, head of US Pacific Command, with one lawmaker likening the situation to the beginning of World War I. Sen. Angus King (I) of Maine pointed to a greater danger that there could be a “Guns of August” event – a reference to the book by Barbara Tuchman, considered required reading within the US military, that illustrates how Europe “stumbled” into World War I through a series of miscalculations.

Admiral Locklear did not dismiss the statement. “I share your concern about the seriousness of a provocation that would lead to a miscalculation or an escalation that would go kind of up and out pretty quickly,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

So quickly, in fact, that “you could see significant combat activity from the North is a very short time line,” he added. “It is a very dangerous situation.”

Pentagon officials have been trying to ratchet down tensions in recent days, deciding on Monday to delay a routine reliability test of a Minuteman-III intercontinental ballistic missile at Vandenberg Air Base in California so it would not be misconstrued by North Korea, given that it is a “particularly tenuous time” in the region.

But Locklear's comments Tuesday underscore how seriously the Pentagon is viewing the threat. He told lawmakers that US assets in the region could knock down a missile fired from North Korea if it were seen to be a threat. Various intelligence reports suggest North Korea could fire a missile imminently.

The threat is not just from missiles, Locklear said. North Korea’s armaments in the demilitarized zone make the possibility of a miscalculation even more dangerous, Locklear added.

“That amount of artillery, through a miscalculation or a provocation, would put Seoul at risk,” Locklear said. “And it is a primary concern of US Forces Korea and mine.”

Even as the US ratchets back its own rhetoric and even long-planned military exercises, other nations could be doing more to help calm regional tensions, Locklear said.

China “could do more” to help North Korea ease tensions, he said, particularly since it is the isolated dictatorship’s only influential ally and primary food supplier (Locklear noted in testimony that the North Korean economy is only 2 percent the size of of South Korea’s economy.)

The links between Iran and North Korea also remain “very much a concern to me,” Locklear said.

That’s because when North Korea goes through its “cycles of provocation, one of the things they rely on to fund their ability to do what they do is through proliferation and movement of arms sales around the world,” he said.

“I don’t have any direct knowledge that there’s been – in this near-term case that there’s been – a collusion between Iran and North Korea,” he added, “but it doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.”

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