The parading of U.S. air and naval power within view of the Korean peninsula — first a few long-range bombers, then stealth fighters, then ships — is as much about psychological war as real war. The U.S. wants to discourage North Korea’s young leader from starting a fight that could escalate to renewed war with South Korea.

Worries in Washington rose Tuesday with North Korea’s vow to increase production of nuclear weapons materials. Secretary of State John Kerry called the announced plan “unacceptable” and stressed that the U.S. is ready to defend itself and its allies. But he and other U.S. officials also sought to lower the rhetorical temperature by holding out the prospect of the North’s reversing course and resuming nuclear negotiations.

At a joint news conference with visiting South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, Kerry said the U.S. would proceed “thoughtfully and carefully” and in consultation with South Korea, Japan, China and others.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in a call late Tuesday to China’s defense minister, called the North’s development of nuclear weapons a “growing threat” to the U.S. and its allies.

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