Pentagon warns North Korea: You are 'very close to a dangerous line'

North Korea is unpredictable, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says. That's why the Pentagon aims to ratchet down tensions, even as it tries to 'prepare for every contingency.'

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (l.) accompanied by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, participates in a news conference at the Pentagon on Wednesday on the fiscal year 2014 defense budget, at which they also answered questions about North Korea.

What might the consequences be of a North Korean ballistic missile launch – and is the military dictatorship flirting with war?

The nation’s top defense official, while attempting to be reassuring – in keeping with the Pentagon’s recent efforts to ratchet down tension in the region – at the same time warned Wednesday that North Korea is “skating very close to a dangerous line.”

This is due in large part to the prospects of a North Korean ballistic missile launch, threatened by leader Kim Jong-un and now widely expected to take place.

“North Korea has been, with its bellicose rhetoric, with its actions ... skating very close to a dangerous line,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said at a Pentagon press conference Wednesday.

“Their actions and their words have not helped defuse a combustible situation,” he added.

So what is Mr. Kim trying to accomplish through his behavior? Is he looking for war, or simply trying to wrangle a better position at the negotiating table by making any actions short of his bellicose threats seem almost reasonable?

“Well, first, he doesn’t check with me on his decisions or how he’s feeling each day as a leader,” Mr. Hagel said in response to reporter questions along these lines. 

“I mean, the reality is that he is unpredictable. That country is unpredictable,” he added.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, who also took part in the briefing, offered his own views on the matter, noting that these questions about North Korea come on a day when the Pentagon rolled out its defense budget “absorbing hundreds of billions of dollars in reductions for the good of the American people so that the United States of America can get back on a more solid economic foundation."

“And what is Kim Jong-un doing? He’s starving his people with a military-first policy,” Dempsey added, referring to the fact that North Korea funnels much of its gross domestic policy into weaponry, rather than agricultural development when most of the country is malnourished. “It’s pretty hard for us to figure that out.” 

So then how does the Pentagon best proceed? 

If Kim’s unpredictability “is the reality that we’re dealing with – and it is – you prepare for every contingency,” Hagel said. 

And should the American people be concerned that those contingencies might include another war? Hagel did not take on this question directly, but offered that “we have every capacity to deal with any action that North Korea would take to protect this country and the interests of this country and our allies.” 

Dempsey would not discuss what he called “the proximity of the North Koreans to achieving a miniaturization of a nuclear device on a ballistic missile,” which he called “a classified matter.”

That said, he noted that the regime has conducted two nuclear tests and several successful ballistic missile launches. “And in the absence of concrete evidence to the contrary, we have to assume the worst case,” he added. “And that’s why we’re postured as we are today.” 

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