* Hagel tours zone under watchful eye of northern troops
* 'No margin for error up here'
* North Korea seen watching U.N. response on Syrian chemical
By David Alexander
PANMUNJOM, Korean Demilitarized Zone, Sept 30 (Reuters) -
U .S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel toured the Korean DMZ on
Monday, at times under the watchful eye of North Korean
soldiers, and said the Pentagon had no plan to reduce its
28,500-member force in the South despite budget constraints.
"This is probably the only place in the world where we have
always a risk of confrontation," Hagel said after touring a
single-story building with a corrugated metal roof where talks
are held with North Koreans on Conference Row in the truce
village of Panmunjom.
As Hagel walked through the building, which spans the
military demarcation line between North and South, two North
Korean soldiers peered through the windows on the northern side
filming his movements.
"There's no margin of error up here," Hagel told reporters
after walking through the structure. "It's a very important
location that we need to pay attention to."
Hagel also visited the hilltop Observation Post Ouellette in
the demilitarized zone (DMZ), where he looked across a valley
into North Korea and received a briefing from South Korean
Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin. The post is named for Private
Joseph Ouellette, who won the Medal of Honor in the Korean War.
The U.S. defense secretary's visit to the demilitarized zone
came on the first full day of a four-day trip to South Korea to
celebrate the 60th anniversary of a mutual security alliance
between the two countries.
Hagel will participate in talks about the future of the
alliance with his South Korean counterpart and will attend a
change-of-command ceremony for U.S. forces in South Korea. He
will be joined Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of
U.S. Pacific Command.
Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, the former director of the
U.S. Joint Staff, will take over as commander of U.S. forces in
Korea from Army General James Thurman.
Hagel told reporters that while the Pentagon is under
pressure to reduce projected spending by nearly a trillion
dollars over the next decade, the U.S. military had no plan to
reduce the size of U.S. forces in Korea.
"No, there's never been any consideration of changing our
force protection or force presence here in Korea or anywhere
else in this area," Hagel said, noting U.S. President Barack
Obama's desire to refocus on the Asia-Pacific after a dozen
years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We'll continue to do what we've got to do to manage those
(spending) reductions, (and) at the same time assure our
partners ... specifically here in the Asia-Pacific that our
commitments still stand," Hagel said.
The U.S. defense chief said he thought North Korea, which is
believed to have large stockpiles of chemical weapons, had been
watching developments surrounding Syria's use of chemical
weapons in its civil war. But he said it was difficult to know
what lessons Pyongyang might draw.
The United Nations adopted a resolution last week demanding
that Syria eliminate its chemical weapons. The vote came amid
outrage over a sarin gas attack in a Damascus suburb that killed
hundreds. Facing the threat of U.S. military action and coaxing
from Moscow, Syria agreed to surrender the arms.
"I think it's pretty clear that North Korea has been
carefully observing the activities, especially of last week at
the United Nations," Hagel said. "Nations who possess those
kinds of weapons and who are irresponsible do watch how the
world responds and reacts."
Before visiting the DMZ on Monday, the U.S. defense chief
watched an exercise in which U.S. and South Korean troops used
live ammunition and explosives to destroy an obstacle so their
tanks and armored vehicles could advance.