North Korea has the capability to launch a nuclear weapon attack against US territory and the US is ready to defend itself from any incoming attack, a US official reported on Wednesday.
Isolated and impoverished, North Korea's nuclear weapons programme is a key source of international leverage and a means of protecting the third-generation dictatorship of the Kim family. The country is believed to be working towards developing an intercontinental ballistic missile mounted with an atomic warhead that can hit targets in the mainland United States.
Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of the US Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said that he agreed with the US intelligence report that North Korea has nuclear weapons and the potential to equip them with a rocket that could reach the US.
He also said it was not easy to predict the behavior of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but the US forces would be able to respond to any attack against their homeland.
"We're ready for him, and we're ready 24 hours a day if he should be dumb enough to shoot something at us," Gortney said.
"I'm pretty confident that we're going to knock down the numbers that are going to be shot."
North Korea's space agency reported last month that Pyongyang was constructing a new satellite and readying it for launch, using a long-range rocket, it is assumed that the clandestine country has made progress in developing a catastrophic missile.
Commander Gortney said the US Army was investing to improve its missile defence systems, by adding new sensors and radars to predicate any potential missile attacks.
Gortney has warned that the failure of the US Congress to agree on a budget for fiscal year 2016, or a resumption of mandatory budget cuts, could be an obstacle for such an effort.
North Korea claims its missile launches are part of a legitimate space programme in sending their satellite into orbit. It has in the past carried out missile tests despite international warnings and sanctions.
North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests between 2006 and 2013, drawing international condemnation. China joined the UN Security Council in a sanctions resolution after the 2013 test.