Standing just steps from the heavily armed border with North Korea, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Monday that Pyongyang is closely watching the international response to Syria's use of chemical weapons against its own people.
And, with North Korean soldiers eyeing his every move, Hagel told reporters traveling with him that the U.S. has no plans to reduce its military presence in South Korea, despite the ongoing budget crisis.
Hagel's visit is timed to the 60th anniversary of the signing of the mutual defense treaty between the U.S. and South Korea, and to reinforce America's commitment to the security of the peninsula and the Asia-Pacific region.
"There is no margin for error up here," Hagel said after a stop in one of the three small blue conference houses that sit on the border of North and South Korea. "This is probably the only place in the world that we have always a risk of confrontation. Where the two sides are looking clearly and directly at each other all the time."
Inside the house, Hagel stepped briefly onto the North Korean side. And when he moved back outside to speak to a crowd of reporters, North Korean soldiers stepped up to the border just alongside the building and watched from about 40 feet away.
Hagel said it's been pretty clear that North Korea, which also has a large stockpile of chemical weapons, has been monitoring the unfolding international effort to destroy Syria's chemical arsenal. And while he's not sure what message the North may take from the latest Syrian developments, U.S. officials suggest that the unanimous U.N. resolution could send a warning shot to Pyongyang.
China, which has been North Korea's only major ally, and Russia both backed the U.N. resolution on Syria. And China has struck a more critical tone regarding North Korea in the past year, cooperating with the U.S. on tightening U.N. sanctions following Pyongyang's underground nuclear test in February.
Other experts, however, caution that America's failure to follow through on its threats earlier this year to launch airstrikes into Syria to stop further use of chemical weapons there, could be interpreted by the North as a sign of weakness.
"If we had used force, I would guess that from North Korea's point of view that would be seen as potentially more threatening, because it would demonstrate a real willingness for the US to use force," said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. There is the potential, she said, for other nations to conclude that, at the end of the day, "the United States is just not as strong as it used to be."
Just 10 miles south of the North and South Korean border, however, U.S. and Korean troops went through a training exercise Monday as Hagel watched, all aimed at showing that the military is ready to respond if needed.
At the Rodriguez Live Fire Complex, U.S. soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division demonstrated an offensive maneuver with Apache helicopters, tanks and armored vehicles, filling the training ground with a haze of smoke and blasts from mortar fire. The exercise was part of the military certification for one of the U.S. platoons serving in South Korea.
From there, Hagel went to Observation Post Ouellette, one of 77 guard posts that line the South Korean side of the border. He then stopped further down the road at Freedom House, where the blue conference buildings stand largely unused these days as a chill has once again settled over North and South Korean communications.
Since March, the North Koreas have refused to answer the routine phone calls from the South's side of the border. On Monday, however, Hagel and his staff attracted a bit of attention from the North as the group toured the South's border facilities.
In addition to the ever-present North Korean guards standing both at the border and a bit further up the hill at their larger outpost, a small group of tourists also stopped to stare down at the group of Americans. According to officials, the tours come through as many as seven to 10 times a day.
Hagel is expected to meet with South Korean officials over the next several days, including events and a parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the alliance as well as Armed Forces Day.
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