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Cmdr. Chip Swicker, commanding officer of the USS John S. McCain, shows the route the Aegis-class destroyer takes out of port to Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., on board the ship Saturday at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Reed did a swing through South Korea and Japan last week to meet with servicemembers.

Cmdr. Chip Swicker, commanding officer of the USS John S. McCain, shows the route the Aegis-class destroyer takes out of port to Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., on board the ship Saturday at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Reed did a swing through South Korea and Japan last week to meet with servicemembers. (Rick Chernitzer / S&S)

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — An aborted trip to North Korea led one U.S. senator to make the most of the situation and say thanks to troops overseas.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., wrapped up almost a week’s visit to the Far East on Saturday by visiting sailors stationed at this naval base near Tokyo.

Following a ship tour and briefings Friday aboard the 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge, Reed had breakfast Saturday morning with sailors aboard the USS John S. McCain. Then, he toured the Aegis-class destroyer’s engineering and combat-control spaces.

Reed got a look inside the USS Kitty Hawk on Saturday.

He said he initially came to the Pacific to visit North Korea, along with fellow Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., to try to defuse what Reed termed an “extremely tense” situation. Recently, Pyongyang admitted to covertly restarting its nuclear-research program and demanded that the International Atomic Energy Commission remove its monitoring devices from the stalled reactor units.

“All of these things, together with the dynamics in South Korea, the anti-Americanism that is flaring up now, all of these factors are important to try to get a sense of … some kind of perspective,” he said.

But the visit was called off when Pyong-yang refused to allow State Department representatives to accompany the delegation. “We don’t operate like that,” the senator said.

Still, seeking a diplomatic solution is important, Reed added, especially given President Bush’s characterization of North Korea earlier this year as part of an “axis of evil.”

“I think you have to look at North Korea on its own merits. It’s not far-fetched to say it’s an evil system,” he said. “But is there coordination and collaboration between Iran and Iraq and North Korea? Not in any material way.

“But the notion of a system that is inhumane, that is disrespectful of basic human rights, and that is very dangerous — that is the description of the North Korean regime.”

Continuing their nuclear research prompts concern that North Koreans will turn their advances into weaponry, Reed said, “and what’s most frightening, will they proliferate that technology and those devices to other countries and terrorist groups? So this is not a situation you can ignore. The hard question is, how do you deal with them?”

Reed said easing current tensions will require effort from other countries in the region, including China.

“You have to take a multinational approach,” he said.

“I’m not the expert, but it appears the Chinese continue to provide just enough support … so that the regime will not collapse. And as long as the Chinese do that, you have a regime in which the people are suffering immensely, but the regime is still able to maintain order.

“And if that continues, then the idea that we’ll suddenly wake up one morning and there’ll be chaos in the streets and Kim Jong Il will flee the country and the walls will come down, I don’t think that’s a very realistic scenario.”

Reed also urged tempering any speculation that impending action against Iraq could begin early next year.

“It will depend a great deal on what the Iraqis do and how much progress is made with U.N. inspections,” he said. “If the United Nations inspection teams are in and working and claiming they’re making progress and they’re effective, it would be very difficult for the United States to politically initiate an attack.

“My sense is that the diplomatic issues will still be dominant,” he said. “As long as the U.N. inspectors are on the ground, working and reporting back to the U.N. that their mission is still going forward effectively, it will be very difficult for the United States alone to say, ‘OK, get out of there, we’re going in.’”

Reed, a member of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on seapower, said he believes the USS Kitty Hawk’s slated 2008 decommissioning is not written in stone.

“There’s lot of different things that will take place between now and then,” he said. “The ship is still very capable, the crew is excellent. I don’t think the Navy’s made a final determination.”

With his mission to the north called off, Reed said, he decided to focus on the second part of his trip to the Pacific, thanking the “remarkable young Americans” serving overseas.

“I wanted to let them know that what they’re doing is not forgotten or ignored in the United States and simply wish them a happy holiday,” he said.

He called the forces he saw last week in South Korea and Japan “superb.”

“They’re highly motivated, well-trained, well-led and under tremendous operational pressures,” he said. “The soldiers and sailors, every day they’re on call and they’re performing, and they need the kind of quality of life that’s important to maintain their morale and effectiveness.”

While visiting Camp Bonifas, near Panmunjom, South Korea, the 53-year-old senator embarked on a five-mile forced march with 2nd Infantry Division soldiers. Reed, a West Point graduate and former Army officer in the 82nd Airborne, said he carried a full rucksack the whole way.

“It was a good opportunity to pretend I’m young again,” he said. “It was perfect weather — 33 degrees. I think if I had to go seven miles, it would have been a different story. I reach the limit of my endurance at about 5½ miles.”

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