February 23, 2016 / 3:34 PM / 3 years ago

U.S. commander in South Korea concerned about North Korea's nuclear weapons program

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The commander of U.S. troops in South Korea told a Senate committee on Tuesday that he was concerned about North Korea’s steps to “aggressively develop nuclear weapons” and it could lead to a miscalculation in the region.

“My top concern remains the potential for a North Korean provocation to start a cycle of action and counteraction which could quickly escalate,” General Curtis Scaparrotti told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Scaparrotti’s comments come after North Korea this month launched what it said was an Earth observation satellite but what the country’s neighbors and the United States called a missile test.

North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January, although experts doubt Pyongyang’s claim that it exploded a hydrogen bomb.

The commander of the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea added that in addition to Pyongyang’s nuclear capability, he was also concerned about its cyber and air defense capabilities.

“All of those things, in about five or six years, are going to be a more formidable problem,” Scaparrotti added.

North Korea warned on Tuesday of harsh retaliation against South Korea and ally United States, which are preparing for annual joint military exercises next month amid heightened tensions following the North’s nuclear test and rocket launch.

The head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, said North Korea posed a threat to Hawaii and other parts of the United States and it would “soon” be a threat to the entire United States.

Harris said it was “preposterous” for China to try to “wedge” itself between the United States and South Korea because those two countries are expected to begin talks on a missile defense system.

U.S. military officials have said the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system is needed in South Korea, but Seoul had been reluctant to openly discuss its deployment given the risk of damaging ties with China, its biggest trade partner.

Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Jonathan Oatis

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