Media Availability with Secretary Hagel at Freedom House in Panmunjom, South Korea

Press Conference

By:  Charles Hagel
Date: Sept. 30, 2013
Location: Panmunjom, South Korea

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Well, you all saw what I saw. This is probably the only place in the world where we have always a risk of confrontation, when two sides are looking clearly and directly at each other all the time. So it's a very important location that we need to pay attention to. There's no margin of error up here.

And the relationship the United States and the South Koreans have is an important one for many reasons, but I do believe that the partnership we've had and how we have been able to skillfully engage this relationship has done as much to keep peace and stability in this region as any one thing.

There's always a challenge; there's always a threat. But this partnership and this relationship is really unique, and it has been able to manage through many ups and downs in the differences between the two countries that share the Korean peninsula.

So I'm glad I was able to come up here and take a look again. I've been up here before. The first time I was here was 1987. And I've been back a few times here, and then, of course, I've been back to South Korea a number of times.

But this is really an important area, so I was glad to have the chance to come up and spend some time up here and see our people and then share some time with the South Korean defense minister and get some good briefings.

So with that, what do you want to talk about? Yes.

Q: Mr. Secretary, if I could ask sort of a broader question, considering the events of the last several weeks with both Iran and with Syria, what message do you think the North Koreans take away from what has happened, considering the threat of force that has prompted the chemical weapons in Syria and the recent talks with Iran? What message do you think North Korea, which hasn't communicated, they said, with the South Koreans for some time now -- what do they take away from all that?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I don't know exactly what they take away from it, but some of you might recall that one of the things that I noted during the testimony the last few weeks before the House and Senate committees that Secretary Kerry and General Dempsey and I participated in was conversations that I had with the South Korean defense minister during the time I was over for the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations]-Plus Defense Ministers' Meetings. And when the South Korean defense minister said to me, we are -- we, the South Koreans, are very concerned because the North Koreans possess a very significant stockpile of chemical weapons, and the North Koreans will be watching very closely if there is and what that response might be, an international response to the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons against their own people.

So I think it's pretty clear that North Korea has been carefully observing the activities, especially of last week at the United Nations. And I think we've always got to keep in mind that threats that come from use of weapons of mass destruction are not limited to borders or regions. They are -- they are global threats.

And nations who possess those kinds of weapons and who are irresponsible do watch how the world responds and reacts. So they're all connected. And I've always believed that, and I noted that during the testimony over the last three weeks that we've provided on the specific issue of Syria.

Q: Mr. Secretary, as you well know, the Department of Defense faces severe budget constraints for a long time in the future. Has there been any consideration at the Pentagon of reducing the number of U.S. forces in South Korea?

SEC. HAGEL: No, there has not been any consideration or conversation about that. We -- as I have said -- the Department of Defense will manage through whatever reductions we have to take. We have this year. We'll continue to do what we've got to do to manage those reductions, at the same time, assure our partners -- and specifically here in the Asia Pacific -- that our commitments still stand. The president's rebalance policy makes that pretty -- pretty clear. So, no, there's never been any consideration of changing our force protection or force presence here in Korea or anywhere else in this area.

Q: During your meetings this week, what questions will you want answered by the Ministry of Defense here in terms of North -- South Korea's capabilities right now to transition December 2015? What areas do you have questions about that you want answers to and you'd like to get some explanation on?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, Tony, we discussed some of this yesterday, and I mentioned, I think, three or four of the areas. And I -- and I said that -- and, again, I think the -- a larger context question that Craig asked about future, the world is always shifting and the threats and the current concerns. And that always requires realignments of assets and priorities of weapons and how you use your alliances to protect those partners and alliances.

And so specific things that we'll be continuing to discuss, as we have been, are capabilities that the South is continuing to improve on and enhance their own capabilities and have been considerably at a very impressive rate: area of intelligence and surveillance, reconnaissance [ISR], missile defense, munitions, communications. Those are but some.

But that's not unusual. Again, when you -- when you look at alliances, realigning your resources and your assets to match the threats, trying to look ahead -- cyber is a very good example. Ten years ago, as I've said many times, who among our allies, including the United States, would have put the same priority on dealing with the cyber threats 10 years ago, as we do today? Even five years ago. So this is a constant process.

Q: Well, does South Korea need to beef up its I.A. -- information assurance capabilities -- to deal with North Korean cyber attacks?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, the South is continuing to enhance and improve and strengthen its capabilities in all areas. And that's good. That's what they should do and they want to do and we want them to do. And we're supporting that.

PRESS SECRETARY GEORGE LITTLE: We've got time for one more.

Q: Mr. Secretary, do you have a personal connection to this area beyond your official capacity as defense secretary, from your own personal past in the service and so forth?

SEC. HAGEL: Not really. And the first time I was here, as I noted, in 1987 was president of the USO. And because in 1987, as many of you know, we had 50,000 troops here. So USO is still very important here, and as it is around the world. So I spent some time here over that period of time, the three years I was president, and then been back and forth as a senator and businessman.

I noted, I think, this morning, my brother and I worked with the South Koreans, the ROK's [Republic of Korea] Rangers, about two months after Tet in 1968. We had -- one of the companies of our battalion was assigned to work with the Rangers north of Saigon, and we did. And I became very familiar with -- with them at that time. When you're working with them in combat, you get pretty familiar.

But I -- not anything beyond that. My wife has been a teacher in McLean Bible School for many, many years, English-as-a-second-language. And I think she's been doing it for 11 years, once a week, sometimes twice a week. And almost always, half of her class are South Koreans. And so she's become quite fond of the South Korean students, and they have of her. In fact, when I met President Park when she was in Washington a few months ago, she -- in fact, Lilibet was with me -- and she brought up to thank Lilibet, President Park did, for her teaching and her involvement with South Koreans in Washington, as a teacher in English-as-a-second-language.

MR. LITTLE: Thanks, everyone. Appreciate it.

SEC. HAGEL: Thank you. Thank you.

MR. LITTLE: Okay. All right, Mr. Secretary.