- - Friday, October 28, 2011

SEOUL — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Friday that the Asia-Pacific region will be a key focus of U.S. security efforts in the 21st century, but he was cagey about whether U.S. troops would join their South Korean allies in retaliating against North Korean provocations on the troubled peninsula.

“It is no secret that the United States is facing some tough fiscal decisions back home, but we are fully committed to advancing our military presence and capabilities in Asia and on the peninsula,” Mr. Panetta said during a press conference with South Korean Minister of National Defense Kim Kwan-jin.

“The economic and security future of the United States largely rests in the Asia-Pacific region in the 21st century, and this relationship and alliance is crucial to the security of the United States and the security of this region,” he added, noting China and South Korea as bright spots among the world’s economies.

The two defense officials briefed reporters following the 43rd Security Consultative Meeting between the two nations, bound by a mutual defense treaty since the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War.

“The possibility of North Korea conducting additional provocations is very high” in 2012, Mr. Kim said. Last year, a total of 50 South Koreans were killed in an apparent North Korean submarine attack on a warship and an artillery strike on a Yellow Sea island.

Asked if there would be a joint Korean-U.S. retaliation against future attacks, Mr. Kim said: “We will take an initial response as a form of self defense.”

“Later on, when the time comes, there will be a joint response using available assets,” he said, apparently referring to U.S. and South Korean forces.

Mr. Panetta was more restrained. “North Korean provocations are severe threats to Korea,” he said. “Our view is we have an alliance, and we can provide a strong and effective response if we work together and consult.”

North Korea’s totalitarian regime has said the impoverished but nuclear-armed country will attain the status of a “strong and prosperous nation” in 2012, marking the 100th birthday of its long dead “Eternal President” Kim Il-sung.

Meanwhile, the U.S. said in a joint statement that it will maintain its current troop levels in South Korea. The number of U.S. troops on the peninsula has been declining for years. Currently, there are 27,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, the lowest level since the armistice ended the Korean War.

Mr. Panetta and Mr. Kim also said that, beginning in 2015, South Korea will take over wartime operation control responsibilities for the peninsula. Seoul currently is upgrading its command-and-control assets.

The two also affirmed collaboration against what Mr. Panetta called “future threats” via space and cyber warfare. North Korea has been accused of launching cyber attacks against South Korean banks and government websites over the last two years.

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