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Cohen Raps North Korea, Lauds Asia Security Ties

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

TOKYO, Jan. 13, 1999 – Defense Secretary William S. Cohen reacted sharply to North Korea's demand for payment in order to open a suspected nuclear site.

"The North Koreans have said they want $300 million for just the right to look," Cohen said during a Jan. 12 speech to hundreds of service men and women at nearby Yokota Air Base. "That is a pretty expensive peek. What we are saying is we are not in the business of giving you permission. What we need to have is some verification."

North Korea's demand for payment follows U.S., Japanese and South Korean demands to inspect an underground construction site that could house nuclear facilities. If so, the site would violate an earlier agreement to discontinue production of weapons-grade plutonium in exchange for oil and other assistance. If such a plant is under construction, Cohen said, it could threaten the agreement and heighten tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

The secretary was here to meet U.S. troops and Japanese political and military leaders. The visit coincided with a national debate on how much support Japan should give to the roughly 45,000 U.S. service members based here and what, if any, expansion is proper for Japanese Self-Defense Force participation in U.N. and regional peacekeeping operations. The two nations' leaders also planned to discuss ways to deal with the increasing threat posed by North Korea's missile program.

Cohen lauded the U.S. service members at Yokota and, later in the day, Misawa Air Base, for their sacrifices and service to their country. His promise of better pay and retirement benefits drew loud applause at both locations.

"Thank you for being here. Thank you for being here on duty all the time," Cohen said at Yokota. "If we don't have you, we can't maintain the power that we are," he said, urging members not to abandon military service for more lucrative and stable civilian jobs. But in return for staying, "We do owe you a quality of life," he added.

The secretary said President Clinton's promise to increase the defense budget over the next couple of years would mean higher pay raises and a return to a pre-1986 retirement system that provides 50-percent of base pay after 20 years' service. He also outlined his plan for targeting specific groups -- senior noncommissioned officers and middle-grade officers -- for higher pay raises based on performance.

He said U.S. service members based in the Asia-Pacific region are particularly worthy of better benefits, because "2 billion people, from San Diego to Seoul, depend on you."

Perhaps most surprised by Cohen's visit was Air Force Staff Sgt. Melia Bethea, who stood quietly on guard before the dais until the secretary stepped down to present her with technical sergeant stripes. "I can't breathe," she said, in shock, but smiling broadly.

Cohen also gave service members time to ask questions of him and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Tom Foley, who accompanied him to both bases.

Cohen planned to address the importance of the U.S.-Japan mutual security pact and host-nation agreement during Jan. 13 and 14 talks with Japanese leaders. He said he's particularly concerned with Japan's willingness to maintain its host-nation agreement, one of the strongest DoD has with foreign nations where U.S. troops serve.

Air Force Lt. Gen. John Hall, commander of U.S. Forces, Japan, said that a former problem of adequate housing has mostly been fixed by an intense Japanese building program on American installations. Waiting lists have dropped to an average of two months from more than a year, he said.

Traveling with the secretary to Misawa, Hall said he's confident a solution can be worked out to a hot issue of relocating the Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station on Okinawa. "We want to get out of Futenma, maybe decrease our footprint on Okinawa, but we haven't given up on anything," Hall said. "We're open to any ideas, old and new.

"Our hope is that the new administration [on Okinawa] will take a fresh look," Hall continued. The new island governor appears committed to resolving the dilemma; the previous administration wanted all U.S. forces off the island. Subsequent U.S.-Japan agreements call for a reduced U.S. military footprint on the island and less intrusive flying operations.

Also of concern to Hall and Cohen are the health hazards posed by an incinerator adjacent to Atsugi Naval Air Station. Hall said winds frequently carry noxious smoke from the plant directly into high-rise family housing on the base. Cohen said he planned to discuss the problem with Japanese leaders.

Hall said the current host-nation agreement is in force until 2001. He said he's confident the agreement will be renewed and remain strong and favorable to DoD.

Cohen is to meet Japanese defense, political and diplomatic leaders Jan. 13 and 14 before departing Tokyo for Seoul. In Korea, he plans to visit troops and meet with his Korean counterparts and return to Washington Jan. 16.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAn Air Force noncommissioned officer asks Defense Secretary William S. Cohen a question. Cohen addressed troops Jan. 12 at Yokota Air Base, Japan, one stop on his week-long trip to Asia. Douglas J. Gillert   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDefense Secretary William S. Cohen talks to U.S. service members, family members and civilian employees gathered in a hangar at Yokota Air Base, Japan. The secretary lauded the mixed-service group Jan. 12 for its service in the Far East. He told those gathered his top objective is to provide them with better pay and benefits in the future. Douglas J. Gillert   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA surprised and happy Air Force Staff Sgt. Melia Bethea receives an on-the-spot promotion to technical sergeant from Defense Secretary William S. Cohen. The secretary did the honors Jan. 12 during his visit to Yokota Air Base, Japan. A native of Palestine, Texas, Bethea is assigned to the 374th Wing security forces at Yokota. Douglas J. Gillert   
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