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Troop Talks, Bases, Missile Defense Top Cohen Asia Agenda

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

TOKYO, Jan. 11, 1999 – Pledges to U.S. service members of better pay and benefits and promises of assistance to East Asia security mark Defense Secretary William S. Cohen's visit to Japan and South Korea Jan. 10-16.

Cohen was expected to tell service members what DoD is doing to enhance readiness and improve military quality of life during visits to Yokota and Misawa Air bases in Japan the first part of his trip and bases in Korea toward the end of the week.

"We expect to increase readiness across the board to all of our forces," he said. He listed pay, retirement benefits and targeted pay raises as key readiness issues. "All of that will be helpful as far as the quality of people we recruit and retain."

He also cited spare parts inventories, increased training opportunities and modernized weapons as key readiness components.

En route here, Cohen told reporters traveling with him Iraq is one of three issues that have dominated his agenda the past several months. The others were the annual defense budget process and Northeast Asia. He said he was pleased the situation in Iraq and the improved budget outlook allowed him to reschedule this Asia trip, originally planned for last fall.

On his way to Hong Kong Oct. 30 -- with scheduled visits to Japan, Korea and Indonesia as well -- Cohen made it as far as Wake Island before returning to Washington for emergency meetings to deal with Iraq. He said he looked forward to the rescheduled meetings in Japan with Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and Defense Minister Hosei Norota, the visits with American troops, and a luncheon with military commanders at U.S. Ambassador Thomas Foley's residence.

He and Norota will discuss numerous defense issues, including Japanese host-nation support for U.S. bases here; and North Korea, where he said he sees both promise and provocation. While meetings between the United States, Japan, South Korea and North Korea continue to promote the Framework Agreement, Cohen said North Korea's firing of a Taepo Dong missile last August and its submarine-launched infiltration of South Korea increased regional tensions.

"We intend to continue to engage the North Koreans, meeting with the South Koreans, and try to keep the Agreed Framework intact," Cohen said. "That's something that's very important to us, and it's important to Japan and South Korea. So we will spend some time discussing those issues.

"We intend to remain engaged with North Korea as long as it's productive to do so," Cohen said. The launch of a second Taepo Dong would "complicate" continued congressional support of the Agreed Framework, he said.

The North Korean missile firing "really got everyone's attention," Cohen said. "We have been concerned about the proliferation of missile technology for some time and have been developing a number of [theater missile defense] programs."

He said Japan has committed millions of dollars to theater missile defense research, but he would like to see the two nations coordinate their efforts closely. "We think it would be helpful to both Japan and to us if we can have some cooperative effort as far as research and development aspects of the theater missile defense program are concerned," he said.

Although Cohen came here with a long list of specific objectives -- from host-nation support agreements to missile defense -- he said his principal aim is to "reaffirm the strong ties we have with Japan. It really is the hallmark of our relationship throughout the Pacific Region," he said.

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