US confronts North Korea as defense cuts loom

(By Deutsche Welle) As tensions rise on the Korean Peninsula, the US is preparing for major defense cuts. Defense chief Chuck Hagel has called on the Pentagon to simultaneously confront America’s fiscal and national security challenges.

In his first major policy speech as US defense secretary, Chuck Hagel has warned that escalating threats by North Korea represent a “real and clear danger” to American interests, while at the same time calling on the Pentagon to brace for major budget cuts as Washington implements austerity measures.

“We take those threats seriously, we have to take those threats seriously,” Hagel told students at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. “We are doing everything we can, working with the Chinese and others to defuse the situation on the [Korean] Peninsula.”

The defense secretary’s warning came after Pyongyang blocked access to the Kaesong industrial complex on Wednesday, which hosts factories jointly run by North and South Korea. The complex is one of the only examples of cooperation between Pyongyang and Seoul.

Later, Pyongyang further escalated its rhetoric by claiming to have authorized a nuclear strike on the US. Tensions have been boiling on the Korean Peninsula since the North launched a missile into space last December and tested its third nuclear device in February, precipitating tightened UN sanctions.

“In theory such rhetoric is political, it’s a set of gestures, it’s a negotiating tactic as well as an effort to cloak the economic weakness of North Korea by giving it the image of being a constantly threatening military power,” Anthony Cordesman, a defense expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told DW.

“But the difficulty we have historically is that that kind of rhetoric can trigger a set of incidents that no one can really predict …and what starts out as a limited attack or military gesture can escalate into a serious conflict or major military incident,” Cordesman said.

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