By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, July 16 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made clear that his country will not engage in peace talks with North Korea as long as it stays on a nuclearization track.
Hagel said Pyongyang has the obligation and responsibility to move toward the complete and irreversible denuclearization of the peninsula as it agreed to in a 2005 deal with the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.
"That's where we start," the secretary said in an exclusive interview with Yonhap News Agency Monday as the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice approaches next week. It was held at his office on the third floor of the Pentagon.
North Korea has repeatedly called for the dissolution of the major U.S. military body in Korea -- the United Nations Command (UNC) -- and the adoption of a peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice that halted the Korean War. The UNC was created to oversee the armistice.
Hagel said the U.S. and its partners need to continue efforts through the six-party talks and other forums to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.
"But until the government of North Korea commits to that and the complete, irreversible denuclearization of the Korea Peninsula, then I don't see how we, the United States, can move in any other direction other than to continue to maintain the alliance that we have," he said. "So, until the North Koreans start to fulfill those commitments, then I think we are pretty limited to how far we can discuss it."
Hagel, the first enlisted combat veteran to head the Pentagon, said he appreciates the sacrifice and service of American troops in the Korean War, now dubbed the "Forgotten War."
"Those veterans received very little recognition when they came back," he said. "So, I want to thank them, acknowledge them on behalf of our country. We do understand what they did, the contribution they made, how important that contribution was at a very critical and defining time."
According to official data, 36,574 American troops were killed in the war and 103,284 others were wounded.
The Pentagon is campaigning to enhance public awareness of the historic value of the conflict, describing it as the "Forgotten Victory."
Hagel said that is borne out by South Korea's economic development and progress based on a strong alliance with the U.S.
"The alliance has been remarkably effective and strong. I believe we will keep it strong. And this has also remarkably been the policy of the United States of America -- that alliance -- for 63 years through every different administration, Republican, Democratic, conservative, liberal, Congresses," he stressed. "The ebb and flow of American politics has never changed at all that doctrine and strategy and that commitment."
Hagel said his personal experience with Korea dates back to 1986.
He made his first trip to Korea at that time as president of the United Service Organization (USO), a nonprofit organization that provides programs, services and live entertainment to U.S. troops and their families.
His wife, Lilibet, also maintains ties with Koreans as she teaches English to spouses of foreigners once a week.
"The biggest group that comes to her classes are spouses of military and diplomatic representatives of the Republic of Korea," he said.
She has been corresponding and communicating for years with some of her students who are now back in South Korea, added Hagel, a former senator who assumed the Pentagon post in late February.
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