McCain Concerned About 'Unpredictability of This Overweight Young Man in North Korea'

By Susan Jones | April 17, 2015 | 7:18 AM EDT

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. speaks on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

( - Two top military officials on Thursday told Congress that "an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable North Korea" is a threat to the United States and its allies.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) called their concerns "rather disturbing, particularly given the unpredictability of this overweight young man in North Korea," a reference to dictator Kim Jong-un.

"In recent years, North Korea's aggressively developed and utilized asymmetric capabilities, such as cyber warfare, nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to advance its interest," Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti told the committee. (Scaparrotti is commander of the United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command, and U.S. Forces Korea.)

He noted that North Korea already has conducted cyber attacks on South Korea's banks and broadcasting networks; and against Sony Pictures in the United States.

"My top concern is that we will have little to no warning of a North Korean asymmetric provocation, which can start a cycle of action and counteraction leading to unintended escalation. This underscores the need for...the alliance to maintain a high level of readiness and vigilance."

McCain asked the general if North Korea really has an "operational, road-mobile  missile that could carry nuclear weapons to the United States."

"Senator, I -- I believe that they've had the time and the capability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead. They've stated that they have an intercontinental ballistic missile as a nuclear capability. They've paraded it. And I think as a commander, we must assume that they have that capability."

McCain then turned to Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear III, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command. "I would agree with that assessment," Locklear said. "I mean, we haven't seen them effectively test it, but we -- you know, as commanders, all the indications are that we have to be prepared to defend the homeland from it, and we're taking actions to do that."

Locklear said the Pacific Command works very closely with the Northern Command "to ensure that the defensive capabilities of our ballistic missile systems are optimized."

He also said the U.S. is discussing the potential deployment of a THAAD (missile defense) battery on the Korean Peninsula.

"General, this is rather disturbing," McCain said, "particularly given the unpredictability of this overweight young man in North Korea. Is that...a disturbing factor?"

"That's a disturbing factor, sir," the general replied.

"And I think -- you know, I believe that Kim Jong-un is unpredictable. He has a mind that-- he can intimidate. He does that with provocations. He's -- he's committed provocations this year. So I think it's a great concern given the leadership there, as well."

Later, Scaparrotti said North Korea is not slowing down its missile development: "They had more  missile events or launches in '14 than they've had the previous five years together, each of these being a -- you know, a violation of the -- of the U.N. (Security Council resolutions)."

Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Scaparrotti to rate the likelihood of an armed conflict between South Korea and North Korea in the next ten years, on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being highly likely.

"Well, sir, I think that -- I caveat by saying I think that if (Kim Jong-un) knows that if he were to conduct a conventional attack on South Korea it'd be the end. So I don't think that's his purpose. I think it's to maintain his regime. But I think over a 10-year period it's above a 5. It's a 6 probably."

The general added that "with less deterrence, it becomes more likely that we have a conflict."

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) noted that the U.S. has "very complicated relations with the Chinese," and he asked Scaparrotti if the U.S. has a "contingency plan to communicate with them" if a "serious provocation by the North Koreans" results in the use of force.

"Well, you know, as we, even in our exercises, one of the first priorities is communications with China if there's conflict on the peninsula. And so we exercise that in communications even in our exercises, and of course, it's very important for us to understand that and ensure that they understand our intent."

Reed also asked to what extent China is "facilitating some of these activities by the North Koreans, particularly cyber."

"My sense is, and those who have had conversations with them, I haven't talked to their military directly, but that they also are concerned and have some frustrations with the Kim regime," Scaparrotti replied.