SEOUL — U. S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel says North Korea is watching how the world deals with Syria and its chemical weapons. Hagel made the comments during a visit to the border between North and South Korea and ahead of talks with South Korean officials.
At the start of a four-day trip to South Korea Monday, the U.S. defense chief toured the heavily armed South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the border with North Korea.
Chuck Hagel also visited the Joint Security Area (JSA) at the Panmunjom truce village where officials from the two Koreas sometimes meet and where their soldiers have faced-off for six decades.
North’s chemical stockpile
Hagel peered across the border from an observation post just meters from North Korea.
He noted Seoul's concerns about the North's stockpile of chemical weapons and said Pyongyang is carefully watching to see how the world deals with Syria and works to rid it of chemical weapons.
“Threats that come from use of weapons of mass destruction...are not limited to borders or regions. They are global threats. And, nations who possess those kinds of weapons, and who are irresponsible, do watch how the world responds and reacts,” said Hagel.
North Korea is believed to have massive stocks of chemical weapons. In February, the North came under heavy criticism, and tougher sanctions, after testing its third nuclear device and threatening preemptive attacks on Seoul and Washington.
Kim Min-seok, South Korea's Defense Ministry Spokesman, said Hagel's border visit was significant as it was his first and underscored the shared U.S.-South Korea military history.
He said this year marks the 60th anniversary of the alliance between South Korea and the United States, adding that the defense secretary visited the border to inspect the status of the area.
Issue of command handover
Hagel and his South Korean counterpart, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin will hold talks assessing the threat from North Korea as well as plans for South Korea to take over war-time military operational controls from the U.S.
Washington was scheduled to hand over war-time command in 2012 but South Korea, citing tensions with the North, pushed for an extension to 2015.
Seoul wants that deadline extended again but Washington is reluctant. Hagel has indicated there is not likely to be a final decision on the deadline during his visit.
Daniel Pinkston, deputy director for Northeast Asia at the International Crisis Group, said if the armistice were to fail, and wartime conditions returned, the integration of forces would not be a simple matter.
“This is something that has to be resolved at the working level and a number of criteria have to be met. The two allies wish to see South Korea leading this defense posture to deter North Korea. But, there are a number of technical issues that have to be resolved,” said Pinkston.
Secretary Hagel, en route to Seoul Sunday, said it was important to assure allies in Asia that a possible U.S. government shutdown would not affect U.S. commitments to the region. He called lawmakers' threat of freezing spending an 'astoundingly irresponsible' way to govern.
"The greatest democracy in the world, the largest democracy in the world, and we're putting our people through this. That's not leadership. That's abdication of responsibilities," said Hagel.
The U.S. Secretary of Defense Wednesday will co-host a ceremony in Seoul welcoming the new commander of U.S. forces in Korea. Hagel will then head to Japan to join U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in discussions of regional issues including North Korea and tensions between Tokyo and Beijing.
VOA Seoul bureau producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.