SEOUL - Almost 29,000 U.S. troops in South Korea are staying put to help keep North Korea in check, even as Washington and Seoul eye a bigger role for South Korean military forces across the region.
U.S. defense officials in Seoul for annual talks with their South Korean counterparts have been talking up a bigger role for South Korean forces in the Indo-Pacific. But even as both countries work to establish what exactly Seoul's role will be, they agreed the threat from Pyongyang cannot be ignored.
"The DPRK is continuing to advance its missile and weapons programs which is increasingly destabilizing for regional security," U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, using the abbreviation for North Korea's formal name, following a meeting Thursday with his South Korean counterpart and other high-ranking U.S. and South Korean military officials.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, center, and South Korea's Defense Minister Suh Wook, center left, pose with members of South Korea's 2nd Army command during a taekwondo display at a ceremony at the great parade ground in the Ministry of National Def
Austin said both Washington and Seoul remain committed to diplomacy when dealing with North Korea, though they discussed, "measures to enhance our combined deterrence posture and to defend against the full ran
As part of that, South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook said Thursday that the U.S. troop presence on the Korean Peninsula would remain at its current levels.
"The secretary and I reaffirmed the U.S. commitment towards combined defense and provision extended deterrence," Suh said through a translator.
A joint communique issued after the meeting further said the U.S. commitment included using the "full range of U.S. defense capabilities, including nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities."
Additionally, both countries approved updating the strategic planning guidance, or war plan, for confronting North Korea in case of an attack, given Pyongyang's growing military capabilities.
"This is the right thing to do," a senior defense official told reporters ahead of Thursday's annual Security Consultative Meeting. "The strategic environment has changed over the past few years.'
A TV screen showing a news program reporting about North Korea's missile launch with file footage is seen at a train station in Seoul, South Korea, Oct. 19, 2021.
In particular, U.S. officials have expressed concern about Pyongyang's tests of a cruise missile, a short-range ballistic missile, a submarine-launched ballistic missile, and what North Korea claims was a test of a hypersonic glide vehicle, all in just the last several months.
However, both countries made clear that they are looking beyond the threat posed by the north.
South Korea's Suh, in particular, praised what he described as "in-depth discussions" aimed at the "the promotion of security in the region."
And the communique noted both officials "acknowledged the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait."
But exactly what role South Korea would play there, or elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, has yet to be defined, Suh said.
Washington and Seoul also made progress on plans to eventually transfer command of U.S. and South Korean forces on the Korean Peninsula to South Korea.
The communique calls for the two allies to conduct an assessment next year, with additional steps to be taken depending on the results.