WASHINGTON - Two senior U.S. commanders said Thursday that the military is ready if called upon to shoot down North Korea's planned rocket launch next month.
The top U.S. commander in the Pacific, Adm. Timothy Keating, told senators at a hearing that there was a "high probability" that the United States could knock down a North Korean missile. Gen. Walter Sharp, the U.S. commander in South Korea, said the threat "is real."
The comments come as North Korea reportedly prepares for what many believe will be a long-range missile test in early April. North Korea says it will launch a communications satellite, and defends the launch by saying other countries have been pursuing peaceful space programs.
Keating said the United States is getting "reasonable intelligence" reports that give a close look at North Korea's activities.
"We'll be prepared to respond," he said, adding that "the United States has the capability" to shoot down any missile.
Sharp said any launch would be a "very clear" violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution. "The threat," he said, "is real, and it is felt in South Korea." The U.S. has some 28,500 military personnel in South Korea.
"We call on North Korea not to act in this provocative manner," Sharp said.
In his testimony, Sharp said North Korea continues to build missiles of "increasing range, lethality and accuracy" for sale in Syria and Iran and elsewhere and for its own forces.
The United States, he said, "cannot afford to overlook" the threat those missiles pose to Asia and the world.
Sharp said North Korea is struggling with attempts to balance increased contact with the outside world and the risks such contact poses to "regime control."
That, Sharp said, "raises questions about the long-term viability of an increasingly stressed North Korean regime."
Sharp also said North Korean leader Kim Jong Il "is in charge. Every major decision is coming directly from him."
Kim, 67, reportedly suffered a stroke in August. North Korea denies he was ill.