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U.S., South Korea defense chiefs vow to step up military drills

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup held talks Tuesday in Seoul. Photo courtesy of Republic of Korea Ministry of Defense
1 of 3 | U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup held talks Tuesday in Seoul. Photo courtesy of Republic of Korea Ministry of Defense

SEOUL, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his South Korean counterpart Lee Jong-sup agreed Tuesday to expand combined military drills and step up deterrence efforts to respond to evolving North Korean nuclear and missile threats.

Austin and Lee held bilateral talks in Seoul and condemned North Korea's continued provocations, including a slew of missile launches and recent drone incursions.

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In a joint statement, the two defense chiefs agreed to "strengthen combined exercises and training, including the upcoming combined bilateral exercises."

The officials "concurred on the need to take into account changes in the security environment, including the DPRK's recent steps with respect to its nuclear and missile program."

The Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea is the official name of North Korea.

Austin and Lee said they agreed to boost information sharing and joint planning, including tabletop exercises focused on North Korean nuclear scenarios.

The Pentagon chief's trip to South Korea comes as Washington looks to reassure its ally of its "extended deterrence" commitment against nuclear threats from the North.

The commitment includes U.S. conventional, nuclear and missile-defense capabilities. However, questions about the reliability of the American nuclear umbrella have grown louder in Seoul amid North Korean provocations.

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Earlier this month, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol floated the idea of Seoul looking to deploy American tactical nuclear weapons or even developing its own if the security situation deteriorated.

Public support for homegrown nukes has also been on the rise, with 76% of respondents in a recent survey favoring the idea of South Korea arming itself.

Austin, however, said Tuesday that Washington and Seoul "are committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and we've long been that way."

In a joint press briefing with Lee after their meeting, Austin said the United States "stands firm" in its extended deterrence commitment.

"As things continue to evolve, our alliance continues to strengthen and we look for ways to strengthen that extended deterrence," he added.

Austin said there would be more frequent deployments of U.S. strategic assets as advanced stealth jets and aircraft carriers to Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently called for "an exponential increase" of the country's nuclear arsenal. He also ordered the mass production of lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons, which are designed to be used on the battlefield.

Austin said the tabletop exercises would make sure that Seoul and Washington "left no stone unturned" in nuclear defense preparations. The two defense chiefs also highlighted their commitment to boost trilateral security cooperation with Japan, including the enhanced sharing of missile warning data.

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The Pentagon chief was scheduled to meet with Yoon before heading to the Philippines.

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