US defense secretary heads to Seoul, Tokyo
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, pictured September 18, flies Saturday to South Korea and Japan to affirm military ties that are entering a new chapter in the face of North Korea's threats and China's growing power
It will be Hagel's third visit to the region as Pentagon chief, and comes as Washington presses ahead with its strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific region despite growing budget pressures and repeated crises in the Middle East.
The first leg of his trip in South Korea will be filled with symbolic moments as he attends celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the alliance between the two countries, a bond that dates back to the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953.
Hagel on Monday is scheduled to tour the demilitarized zone between the South and North with his counterpart, Kim Kwan-Jin and watch joint US-South Korean exercises. On Tuesday, he is due to attend a parade marking the country's armed forces day and to hold talks with Kim.
On Wednesday, Hagel presides over a change of command ceremony for US forces in South Korea, with General James Thurman handing over to General Curtis "Mike" Scaparotti, who will take charge of the 28,500 US troops deployed in the country.
The alliance between Washington and Seoul calls for the American commander to lead South Korea's 640,000-strong force in the case of a war with the North.
The two countries have repeatedly delayed plans to transfer "operational control" to Seoul, with an original goal of 2012 pushed back to 2015. Tensions with North Korea have made Seoul cautious about a scaling back of the US role, and the South has asked Washington to review the timing of the planned transition.
In Japan, where tensions are running high with China, Hagel will take part Thursday along with US Secretary of State John Kerry in a "two plus two" meeting with their respective counterparts, Itsunori Onodera and Fumio Kishida.
The outlook for regional security will top the agenda for the discussions, including "what's going on in the Korean peninsula, what's going on elsewhere in Asia-Pacific, including China and the South China Sea," said the defense official.
Tokyo is particularly concerned about what it considers China's dangerous behavior around the Senkaku islands, an archipelago in the East China Sea that Beijing refers to as the Diaoyus islands.
During the talks, the two ministers also will look at the defense guidelines for the US-Japan alliance, which have not been amended since 1997, officials said.
Hagel's trip comes as Tokyo moves toward a dramatic shift in its security policy, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calling for beefing up his country's military, citing the bitter row with China over the disputed islands.
Hagel will wrap up his Asia trip on Friday with a stop at the US naval base at Yokosuka, where he will visit a destroyer and speak to troops.
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