The U.S. and South Korea have pledged to "advance combat readiness capabilities" near the disputed sea border with North Korea, warning against any future aggression by Pyongyang. The warning came as defense leaders of the two military allies met for their annual security consultative meeting.
Speaking at a news conference in Seoul Friday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and his South Korean counterpart, Kim Kwan-jin, said provocations by North Korea similar to a pair of deadly attacks last year will not be tolerated.
The two defense chiefs announced a joint commitment to "advance combat readiness capabilities" in and around the tense, disputed maritime border off the west coast of the Korean peninsula.
Panetta pledged the United States will sustain and enhance its military presence on the peninsula and in the Asian region despite the threat of deep cutbacks in the U.S. military budget.
"Together we will ensure a strong and effective alliance deterrence posture, including the United States' nuclear umbrella, so that Pyongyang never misjudges our will and our capability to respond decisively to nuclear aggression," he said.
Tensions have been high on the Korean Peninsula since the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship that Seoul blamed on Pyongyang, followed by North Korea's artillery attack on a South Korean border island that killed four people.
The North has denied any responsibility in the sinking of the warship. But Pyongyang has defended its shelling of Yeonpyeong island last November, saying it was in response to a South Korean provocation during a military exercise there.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim calls the possibility of fresh provocations next year by North Korea "very high."
Kim says if there is such an incident, South Korea would initially respond with its own forces and then, if an expanded counter-attack is needed, additional assets of the U.S. military would be included.
The United States maintains more than 28,000 military personnel in South Korea.
Diplomats from the United States and North Korea this week held a rare second round of direct talks in Geneva. The discussions are intended to explore resuming six-nation talks on Pyongyang's nuclear programs.
The talks - involving both Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan - have not been held for nearly three years. North Korea in 2009 announced it was quitting the talks. Subsequently it exploded a second nuclear device and test-launched additional advanced missiles.
U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta expressed doubts that talks between Washington and Pyongyang will convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programs.
Panetta and Kim on Friday expressed additional concern about North Korea's revelation last year that it now also has a uranium enrichment program. They called the program a "grave threat," saying it gives Pyongyang a second path to making nuclear weapons.
They urged North Korea to "demonstrate its genuine will toward denuclearization through concrete actions." Both Washington and Seoul have repeatedly said abandoning nuclear weapons is a pre-requisite for resuming the six-nation talks. Pyongyang has said there should be no pre-conditions.