Hagel-N Korea

By Lee Chi-dong

WASHINGTON, March 28 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Thursday that North Korea has become more dangerous today and the U.S. has to be prepared for "any eventuality" on the peninsula.

"I think their very provocative actions and belligerent tone has ratcheted up the danger. And we have to understand that reality," he said during a news conference at the Pentagon. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined the session, aimed mainly at describing the U.S. military's efforts to deal with North Korea and other problems amid massive defense budget cuts.

The secretary stressed that the U.S. and its allies should take seriously "every provocative, bellicose word and action that this new young leader (Kim Jong-un) has taken so far." The communist nation has a 1.1-million-strong military and nuclear bombs.

Hagel admitted "there are a lot of unknowns" when it comes to the secretive and unpredictable North.

Hagel dismissed a view that dispatching B-2 stealth bombers to the peninsula was a provocative move itself.

He said the B-2 flights were just part of annual joint military drills with South Korea.

"Those exercises are mostly to assure our allies that they can count on us to be prepared and to help them deter conflict," Hagel said.

The South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command announced Thursday (Seoul time) that the U.S. Air Force's nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers carried out their first-ever bombing drill over Korea.

Earlier in the month, the U.S. also flew B-52 strategic bombers over South Korea for training, drawing fierce criticism from Pyongyang.

The move was apparently intended to send a warning message to the North, which has been churning out military threats.

When asked about the Pentagon's decision to dispatch B-2 bombers despite budget reductions, Hagel cited strategic considerations in defending not only the U.S. but also its regional allies.

"We factor in all of these different tactical moves for compliance with the larger strategic interests of an exercise with allies," he said.

Hagel said his department would strive to weather budget woes in an efficient way despite the North Korea crisis and other challenges.

"We will work around that. I mean, we will make things work for that readiness. That's a priority. You have to have that," he said.

Regarding the B-2 flights, Dempsey said they were a message not only for North Korea but also for South Korea and Japan.

"The reaction to the B-2 that we're most concerned about is not necessarily the reaction it might elicit in North Korea, but rather among our Japanese and Korean allies," he said. "You know, those exercises are mostly to assure our allies that they can count on us to be prepared and to help them deter conflict."

He noted the North's military is in an annual exercise cycle, as are the U.S. and South Korea.

Although there have been moves in the maritime domain on each coast, as well as with some artillery units near the inter-Korean border, all have been "consistent with historic patterns and training exercises," Dempsey said.

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