Hagel: US not 'poking back' at North Korean aggression

"We are not poking back or responding" to North Korea's recent aggressiveness toward Washington and its allies in the region, Hagel told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon. 

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"The issue is we have to be prepared to defend our interests in the region," he said, adding that "you only need to be wrong once" when calculating the risk of confronting a nuclear-capable North Korea, according to Hagel. 

Those preparations have included installing a new battery of intercontinental ballistic missiles in Alaska, as well as continued flights of American heavy bombers — capable of carrying nuclear weapons — in the skies above South Korea. 

On Thursday, DOD said that it had sent two B-2 stealth bombers from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., to South Korea on a “single continuous mission” highlighting the Pentagon's ability to fly long-range, precision-strike missions over the peninsula from bases inside the United States.  

Prior to Thursday's B-2 mission, American commanders at U.S. Forces-Korea also ordered flights of B-52 bombers over Seoul, as part of an ongoing joint military exercise between U.S. and South Korean forces. 

Washington and Seoul also recently inked a new "Counter-Provocation plan, which is designed to increase cooperation between the two militaries at the "strategic, operational and tactical" level, DOD press secretary George Little said on Tuesday. 

Outside of that plan, U.S. commanders in Korea are also working to improve the command and control operations within the South Korean military, presumably in preparation for the worst-case scenario of a regional conflict breaking out on the peninsula. 

North Korea has responded in kind by recently putting its long-range artillery and rocket units on full alert and shuttering a military hotline with South Korea in recent days.

Prior to that, North Korea has repeatedly violated United Nations sanctions and roiled the international community with its missile and nuclear tests. 

Earlier this month, Pyongyang officially terminated the 1953 armistice with South Korea that ended the Korean War.

The ongoing game of military one-upmanship between Washington and Pyongyang, combined with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's "belligerent tone has ratcheted up the danger [in the region] and we have to understand that reality," according to Hagel.  

But that reality must not impede U.S. and international efforts to bring North Korea to heel peacefully, while protecting American interests in the Asia-Pacific, the DOD chief added. 

"I do not think the way to solve [this] is to go to war," according to Hagel. That said, the Pentagon and White House "do not have any choice but to anticipate the worst-case scenarios."