Pentagon chief, at Korean DMZ, says US will not cut force in Korea

Reuters

* Hagel tours zone under watchful eye of northern troops

* 'No margin for error up here'

* North Korea seen watching U.N. response on Syrian chemicalarms

By David Alexander

PANMUNJOM, Korean Demilitarized Zone, Sept 30 (Reuters) -U .S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel toured the Korean DMZ onMonday, at times under the watchful eye of North Koreansoldiers, and said the Pentagon had no plan to reduce its28,500-member force in the South despite budget constraints.

"This is probably the only place in the world where we havealways a risk of confrontation," Hagel said after touring asingle-story building with a corrugated metal roof where talksare held with North Koreans on Conference Row in the trucevillage of Panmunjom.

As Hagel walked through the building, which spans themilitary demarcation line between North and South, two NorthKorean soldiers peered through the windows on the northern sidefilming his movements.

"There's no margin of error up here," Hagel told reportersafter walking through the structure. "It's a very importantlocation that we need to pay attention to."

Hagel also visited the hilltop Observation Post Ouellette inthe demilitarized zone (DMZ), where he looked across a valleyinto North Korea and received a briefing from South KoreanDefense Minister Kim Kwan-jin. The post is named for PrivateJoseph Ouellette, who won the Medal of Honor in the Korean War.

The U.S. defense secretary's visit to the demilitarized zonecame on the first full day of a four-day trip to South Korea tocelebrate the 60th anniversary of a mutual security alliancebetween the two countries.

Hagel will participate in talks about the future of thealliance with his South Korean counterpart and will attend achange-of-command ceremony for U.S. forces in South Korea. Hewill be joined Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of theJoint Chiefs of Staff, and Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head ofU.S. Pacific Command.

Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, the former director of theU.S. Joint Staff, will take over as commander of U.S. forces inKorea from Army General James Thurman.

"COMMITMENTS STAND"

Hagel told reporters that while the Pentagon is underpressure to reduce projected spending by nearly a trilliondollars over the next decade, the U.S. military had no plan toreduce the size of U.S. forces in Korea.

"No, there's never been any consideration of changing ourforce protection or force presence here in Korea or anywhereelse in this area," Hagel said, noting U.S. President BarackObama's desire to refocus on the Asia-Pacific after a dozenyears of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We'll continue to do what we've got to do to manage those(spending) reductions, (and) at the same time assure ourpartners ... specifically here in the Asia-Pacific that ourcommitments still stand," Hagel said.

The U.S. defense chief said he thought North Korea, which isbelieved to have large stockpiles of chemical weapons, had beenwatching developments surrounding Syria's use of chemicalweapons in its civil war. But he said it was difficult to knowwhat lessons Pyongyang might draw.

The United Nations adopted a resolution last week demandingthat Syria eliminate its chemical weapons. The vote came amidoutrage over a sarin gas attack in a Damascus suburb that killedhundreds. Facing the threat of U.S. military action and coaxingfrom Moscow, Syria agreed to surrender the arms.

"I think it's pretty clear that North Korea has beencarefully observing the activities, especially of last week atthe United Nations," Hagel said. "Nations who possess thosekinds of weapons and who are irresponsible do watch how theworld responds and reacts."

Before visiting the DMZ on Monday, the U.S. defense chiefwatched an exercise in which U.S. and South Korean troops usedlive ammunition and explosives to destroy an obstacle so theirtanks and armored vehicles could advance.

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