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Hagel's First Address: Light on Crises, Heavy on Restructuring

Hagel wrapped up with his thoughts on America's role in the world, a subject stirring memories of his rocky confirmation hearing.

"If we refuse to lead, something, someone will fill the vacuum. The next great power may not use its power as responsibly or judiciously as America has used its power over the decades since World War II," he said. "We have made mistakes and miscalculations with our great power. But as history has advanced, America has helped making a better world for all people with its power. A world where America does not lead is not the world I wish my children to inherit."

Promising to take a few questions if they weren't "too tough" -- "and even if a general asks a question, I'll answer it" -- Hagel fielded concerns about furloughs and China before a Defense Intelligence Agency employee asked him about recent reported comments from the Defense secretary on North Korea and nuclear capability.

Hagel quipped that press secretary Little chided him to "keep your answers short" and "deny like hell."

"As I said in a news conference, I guess, last week when asked about this, it only takes being wrong once. And I don't want to be the secretary of defense who was wrong once," he said. "So we will continue to take these threats seriously. I hope the North will ratchet this very dangerous rhetoric down. There is a pathway that's responsible for the North to get on a path to peace, working with their neighbors. There are many, many benefits to their people that could come. But they've got to be a responsible member of the world community. And you don't achieve that responsibility and peace and prosperity by making nuclear threats and taking very provocative actions."

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said Hagel, "like many of his predecessors, has laid out a bold agenda for reform."

"As encouraging as many of the secretary's remarks are, the fact that he is being driven to consider dramatic reform not because of strategic threats but because of an irrational budgetary environment remains troubling. The Armed Services Committee will do what it can to prevent the Pentagon from making ill-considered short-term cuts at the expense of long-term strategic need," McKeon said. "We cannot allow inadequate budgets to drive unacceptable strategies."

En route to Denver today for President Obama's gun-control rally, White House press secretary Jay Carney said that despite a new ruler in Pyongyang, North Korea's behavior "represents a familiar pattern, and as I think we’ve seen over the past several administrations."

"North Korea knows the path that's available to it -- the regime does -- and that is a path towards greater integration in the international community, stronger economic development, and better prospects for the North Korean people if they take substantive steps towards denuclearization and abide by the series of international obligations that they are currently flouting," Carney said.

Over at the State Department, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called North Korea freezing entry to the border industrial zone from South Korea "a regrettable move."

"It says to us that despite the international community’s open door to choose a different path, which we have had open for a long, long time now, the Korean leadership is choosing to violate its international obligations and to flout international law rather than to feed and help and improve the lives of their own people," Nuland said.

The Korean Central News Agency, the mouthpiece for Kim Jong-un's regime, reported today on "the final decision of justice prompted by the matchless grit of the brilliant commander of Mt. Paektu to put a definite end to the long-standing history of showdown with the U.S. imperialists and blow up the dens of evils."

"The grudge of the Korean people at the U.S., the sworn enemy, is running high and their patience has gone beyond limitation," the article continued. "All the service personnel and people of the DPRK have waited for the time of a final battle for national reunification, pledging revenge on the U.S. for over half a century. They are waiting for the final order of Kim Jong Un, keeping themselves on high alert."