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WASHINGTON — North Korea's provocative and "bellicose" actions in recent weeks must be taken seriously, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday.
Hagel, at a Pentagon news conference, noted that he had been in contact with South Korean officials. He was critical of North Korea's increasingly "belligerent" tone. North Korea's nuclear capability means Pentagon has no margin for error and has prompted the U.S. military to respond. He dismissed the notion that the Pentagon had overreacted.
"You only need to be wrong once," Hagel said.
Thursday, two American B-2 radar-evading bombers dropped dud bombs on a South Korean range in a show of force aimed at deterring the North Korean regime. The bombers flew more than 6,500 miles from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., as part of joint war games with South Korea, according to the Pentagon. There are 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea.
Hagel spoke with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin on Wednesday night to reaffirm America's commitment to that nation's defense.
North Korea has issued threats recently to attack U.S. bases in the Pacific and on American soil. North Korea has tested long-range missiles but does not appear to have the capability to follow through with an attack. However, the Pentagon has announced plans to bolster its missile-defense shield to counter North Korea.
"We are committed to a pathway to peace," Hagel said. "The North Koreans appear to be headed in a different direction here."
Hagel also said Thursday that the Pentagon's budget picture has brightened slightly, allowing the military to reduce furloughs for its civilian employees from 22 to 14 days.
The Pentagon has to reduce its budget by $41 billion this year because of sequestration — automatic cuts that went into effect March 1 — and a budget deal reached last week to keep the government open. The military had anticipated furloughing the majority of its 800,000 employees for 22 days to save about $5 billion.
Congress granted the military more flexibility in budgeting, and the Pentagon has reduced furloughs to 14 days. That will save the military about $2.5 billion.
"It's good news from where we were two weeks ago," Hagel said.