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US, South Korea Reaffirm Alliance, Timetable for Command Hand-Over

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The United States and South Korea have wrapped up an annual security meeting with assurances that South Korea is on track to assume more autonomy over its defense in the next few years. Officials from both sides say they are committed to getting rid of North Korea's nuclear weapons, and are planning for any scenarios that could destabilize the North.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says he and his South Korean counterpart, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young, reaffirmed the two countries' alliance this week during consultations in Seoul.

"I reinforced once more the unwavering commitment of the United States to the defense of the Republic of Korea," Gates said.

The two officials said Thursday the full array of U.S. military might, including what is known as the "nuclear umbrella" is available to South Korea to defend itself against attack.

North and South Korea remain technically at war. The United States deploys about 28,000 troops here to help deter North Korea from repeating its 1950 invasion.

Under the present agreement between the two alliance partners, the United States would command South Korean forces if the Korean War ever re-ignited. That is to change in 2012, when Seoul will regain wartime command of its armed forces.

Gates says the hand-over process is on schedule.

"I have full confidence in the ROK military's ability to take the lead in the combined defense of this peninsula," Gates said.

South Korean Minister Kim says the two also discussed contingency plans in the event of instability inside North Korea.

He says details are being looked at very closely. The two countries are planning for "all possible scenarios," he says, to make sure there are no negative effects from possible events inside North Korea. Kim says the U.S. and South Korean interest in the matter is very serious.

Gates moves next to Eastern Europe. He has been consulting with international partners on contributions to stabilization efforts in Afghanistan. Gates said Thursday he did not make any specific request of South Korea, leaving the matter to Seoul's discretion.