By Claudette Roulo
The long-standing relationship with South Korea is particularly important to the United States, especially in light of the recent actions by North Korea, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said today.
At a joint Pentagon press conference with Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hagel stressed that the United States and its allies are prepared to address any threat to the Asia-Pacific.
“We — the United States, South Koreans, all of the nations … in that region of the world — are committed to a pathway to peace. And the North Koreans seem to be headed in a different direction here,” Hagel said.
Joint exercises held earlier this month were intended to assure regional allies “that they can count on us to be prepared and to help them deter conflict,” Dempsey said.
On Monday, North Korean media announced that long-range artillery and strategic rocket units were ordered to prepare to deploy to areas near the South Korean border.
“I think their very provocative actions and belligerent tone, it has ratcheted up the danger, and we have to understand that reality,” Hagel said.
South Korean Army Gen. Jeong Sung-jo, the chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. Army Gen. James D. Thurman, the commander of U.S.-Republic of Korea Combined Forces Command, announced March 24 that they had signed a combined plan to counter threats from North Korea.
The chairman noted that, as a commander of a United Nations command, Thurman is responsible for maintaining the armistice between the two Koreas.
“So he has to have not only visibility and transparency, but he has to have influence in the process of managing the potential for conflict on the peninsula,” Dempsey said. A result of two years of discussions, the combined counter-provocation plan establishes a framework for how that influence will be handled, he added.
Uncertainty surrounding the intentions of the North Korean government and its president Kim Jong Un is not the primary issue for the region, Hagel said. But, he added, “We have to take seriously every provocative, bellicose word and action that this new, young leader has taken so far since he’s come to power.”
North Korea’s leaders have a history of ratcheting up tensions in the region to create more favorable conditions for the country, Hagel said. Whether or not that is currently the case, he added, the United States still has to be prepared to respond to contingencies in the region.
“But the fact is that this is the wrong way to go,” Hagel said. “The action that he’s taken and the actions they’ve taken and the words he’s used, it is not going to project a more responsible, accountable relationship.”