- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 29, 2013

SEOUL — The Pentagon’s top leaders arrived Sunday to discuss regional security issues with South Korean military officials amid intensifying crises in the Middle East, deepening cuts in U.S. defense spending and ongoing provocations by North Korea.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled to Seoul in part to reassure South Korea that the Obama administration is committed to its so-called pivot to Asia despite setbacks in the military’s budget and growing unrest in the Arab world.

The Pentagon leaders are expected to discuss North Korea’s nuclear program, enhancing South Korea’s intelligence-gathering capabilities and possibly extending the 2015 deadline for Washington to hand over to Seoul wartime operational control of U.S. and South Korean troops.

SEE ALSO: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in South Korea for security talks

“We’re constantly re-evaluating each of our roles,” Mr. Hagel told reporters traveling with him. “That does not at all subtract from, or in any way weaken, our commitment — the United States’ commitment — to the treaty obligations that we have and continue to have with the South Koreans.”

During their trip, Mr. Hagel and Gen. Dempsey also will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-South Korean mutual defense treaty and visit American troops.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry will join Mr. Hagel this week in Tokyo for talks with Japanese officials. President Obama is due to arrive in the region next week.

The Pentagon has played a major role in the administration’s refocusing of attention and resources on Asia, which makes the Defense Department’s budget problems a source of worry for South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and other allies in the region.

As the world’s second-largest economy, China has engineered a decadelong military buildup that has dwarfed its neighbors, many of which oppose Chinese territorial claims over much of the region’s strategic waterways.

As the Obama administration announced its pivot to Asia in 2011, it also cut the Pentagon’s budget by $500 billion over the next decade and agreed to another $500 billion reduction over 10 years under sequestration — an automatic, across-the-board spending reduction plan.

Officials have insisted that the spending cuts would not affect the Asia pivot. But Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, said in July that budget constraints would slow the Navy’s plans to home-port 60 percent of its ships in the Pacific by 2020.

“Our Asia Pacific rebalance that I’ve talked to you about before … that will be slowed some due to sequestration, but it will continue on, because that is our focus,” Adm. Greenert said again Sept. 10 at an all-hands call.

Planning in the Pacific

Although the pivot aims to strengthen economic, diplomatic and military relationships with allies in the region, Pentagon forces and equipment have become the most tangible signs of cooperation.

“Right now, because of sequestration, you have one in three of U.S. Air Force planes grounded because of lack of money, and last I saw was six ships worldwide that are unable to leave port because of lack of funding, and two of those — a submarine and a guided-missile destroyer — are based in the Pacific,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation.

The Pentagon plans to deploy a second missile defense radar to Japan to guard against North Korean threats, several more littoral combat ships that will rotate through Singapore and as many as 2,500 Marines in Australia.

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