The US and South Korean defense chiefs yesterday vowed to raise combat-readiness against North Korean attacks following two deadly incidents last year, saying aggression “is not to be tolerated.”
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and South Korean Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-jin also described the North’s uranium enrichment program revealed in November last year as a “grave threat” that gave it a second path to develop atomic weapons.
Kim said there was a high possibility of further provocation next year as Pyongyang’s regime works to put a leadership succession plan in place.
The two chiefs made their commitments in a joint statement at the end of security talks.
Inter-Korean ties have been tense since Seoul accused its neighbor of torpedoing a South Korean warship in March last year near the Yellow Sea border with the loss of 46 lives.
The North denied sinking the ship, but shelled a border island in November, killing four South Koreans, including civilians.
“Pyongyang has demonstrated its readiness to conduct provocations that cost innocent lives,” Panetta told a press conference at the end of his three-day visit, in which he expressed full commitment to the defense of South Korea and other Asian allies.
Panetta said US troop levels in the South would not be reduced from the current 28,500 despite spending cutbacks at the Pentagon.
The two said in their statement they would advance combined readiness capabilities on islands and other areas near the disputed Yellow Sea border, a frequent flashpoint.
Any “North Korean aggression or provocation is not to be tolerated,” they reaffirmed.
“Next year, I believe the possibility that NK [North Korea] conducts a further provocation is high,” Kim said, noting a major anniversary next year and the ongoing succession process.
The allies would “respond very strongly” to any new provocation, he said, adding a joint plan for such a response would be completed this year.
The North vows to become a “great, powerful and prosperous nation” by next year, the 100th anniversary of the birth of founder Kim Il-sung.
Kim’s son and current leader Kim Jong-il is grooming his own son Jong-un to take over eventually.
Kim Kwan-jin said the US had agreed immediately to provide “an overwhelming number of forces” during crises.
Asked about the comment, Panetta’s spokesman, George Little, said he “wouldn’t speculate about hypotheticals.”