WASHINGTON - America's unprecedented decision to send nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers to drop dummy munitions during military drills with South Korea this week was part of normal exercises and not intended to provoke a reaction from North Korea, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday.
In response, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, said his rocket forces are ready "to settle accounts with the U.S."
Kim's comments in a meeting with senior generals early today are part of a rising tide of threats meant to highlight anger over the drills and recent U.N. sanctions over Pyongyang's nuclear test.
State media said Kim signed a rocket-preparation plan and ordered rockets on standby to strike the U.S. mainland, South Korea, Guam and Hawaii.
Hagel said North Korea's belligerent tones and actions in recent weeks have ratcheted up the danger in the region, "and we have to understand that reality."
Speaking to Pentagon reporters, Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said the B-2s were a message intended more for allies than Pyongyang.
"The North Koreans have to understand that what they're doing is very dangerous," Hagel said. "I don't think we're doing anything extraordinary or provocative or out of the … orbit of what nations do to protect their own interests."
The U.S., he added, must make it clear to South Korea, Japan and other allies in the region that "these provocations by the North are taken by us very seriously and we'll respond to that."
U.S. Forces Korea announced in a statement Thursday that the two B-2s flew from a base in Missouri and dropped dummy munitions on a South Korean island range before returning home. While B-2s have been used in past military exercises, including one in 2000 that included flights over South Korea, this is the first time dummy munitions were dropped, according to the Pentagon.
The joint drills are likely to heighten the already escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea that have played out in recent weeks, including Pyongyang's threat to carry out nuclear strikes on Washington and Seoul. North Korea has ramped up its rhetoric in response to the recent U.S. military exercises and the U.N. sanctions over North Korea's nuclear test last month.
Use of the B-2 bombers added something of an exclamation point to the training mission, which had already included older but also nuclear-capable B-52s.
"They're telling the North Koreans, 'We can attack you in ways in which you can see us coming, and we can also attack you potentially in ways in which you cannot see us coming,' " said retired Air Force Col. Cedric Leighton, a North Korean intelligence expert.