Hagel raises worries about North Korea's chemical weapons on DMZ trip

Defense Secretary Hagel's comments about the North's chemical arsenal come amid new concerns over the sophistication of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (r.) walks past South Korean soldiers with South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin (2nd l.) during a tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the military border separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea on Monday, September 30, 2013.

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said today that how the international community responds to the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile could be an important influence on another chemical weapons holder: North Korea.

Speaking as he toured the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas on Monday, Mr. Hagel warned that, "This is probably the only place in the world that we have always a risk of confrontation" and that efforts to disarm Syria could have ramifications on the Korean peninsula.

According to the Associated Press:

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.

Hagel watched military exercises between US and South Korean troops held about 10 miles south of the DMZ, before touring the zone with South Korean Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-jin. In Panmunjom North Korean soldiers watched from about 40 feet away.

Hagel’s remarks are one piece of broader concerns that have come to the fore over the past few weeks about North Korea's military capacity – particularly in two recent reports that highlighted concerns over the sophistication of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Last week, China published a 236-page list of chemicals and equipment it is banning from export to North Korea due to worries that they could be used to aid nuclear weapon production, The New York Times reported. Some analysts said the move showed China's willingness to put a new degree of pressure on North Korea.

“The release of the new export control list is a signal China is concerned about the speeding up of weaponization” of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, Zhu Feng, the deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Beijing University, told the New York Times.

In particular, he said, the Chinese are concerned about resumption of plutonium production at the Yongbyon complex, the centerpiece of North Korea’s nuclear program. 

Also last week, two US scientists said North Korean scientists are capable of independently building centrifuge parts, key equipment for development of uranium-based nuclear bombs. As a result, reports AP, tracking North Korea’s nuclear progress by watching import lists may no longer give a reliable picture of their capabilities.

The Times notes that the list's publication "came as a surprise to many who follow North Korea and China, given China’s longstanding reluctance to do anything that might destabilize the North and allow the United States any more power on the Korean Peninsula." But the export ban "appeared to have been approved at the highest levels of the Chinese government," suggesting a significant change in Chinese policy towards the North.

Hagel's trip to Korea also involved discussion of whether to extend US wartime control of South Korean forces.

Under the current alliance with South Korea, if a renewed war with North Korea broke out, a US military commander would lead both the 28,500 US troops deployed in the region as well as South Korea's 640,000 soldiers. That was set to change in 2015, however, when Seoul would take over command of all troops.

But now Seoul is getting cold feet, reports Agence France-Presse.

... South Korean defence policymakers now say they need more time to prepare for the transition, citing increased military threats from the North after its February nuclear test.

Washington is seen as frustrated by Seoul's caution and is keen to push ahead with the transition.

Earlier this year, North Korea drew attention for conducting a nuclear test in February, and for threats by its generals to "dismantle and terminate” the nation's enemies in “any part of the world." As The Christian Science Monitor reported in March, rhetoric against South Korea peaked earlier this year.

But tension has toned down in recent months, and the two Koreas reopened the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a jointly-operated industrial park, earlier this month after five months of closure.

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