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S. Korean, US Defense Chiefs Say N. Korean 'Threat' Remains

The defense chiefs of South Korea and the United States say North Korea remains a serious military threat, despite current steps toward dismantling its nuclear facilities. The two officials wrapped up an annual security consultation by vowing that U.S. forces will remain on the Korean peninsula for "a long time." VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and South Korean Defense Minister Kim Jang-soo said Wednesday they welcome recent steps by North Korea to disable its nuclear facilities. However, Kim says the two countries have not changed their basic perception of North Korea as a military threat.

He says even though North Korea has begun disabling its nuclear programs, it is impossible to say the threat from the North has been tangibly reduced. He says concrete intelligence showing a reduction of the North's forces would be needed to draw that conclusion.

Pyongyang has recently taken the first steps toward fulfilling promises to dismantle its nuclear capabilities. The head of a U.S. nuclear team, who was in the North Korean capital earlier this week, says the North has made "a good start" in dismantling it main nuclear facility.

However, North Korea still deploys nearly a million military personnel and thousands of artillery positions close to its border to the South. For decades, Pyongyang has invested a disproportionate percentage of its tiny economic output in missile, nuclear, and chemical and biological weapons technology. The North tested its first nuclear explosive in October of last year, in defiance of international agreements.

U.S. Defense Secretary Gates says there is a long way to go before either of North Korea's arsenals, nuclear or conventional, is eliminated.

"The North Korean nuclear and conventional threat remains the focal point of our alliance's deterrent and defense posture," Gates said.

The U.S. led a United Nations military coalition to repel North Korea after it invaded the South in 1950. Washington still deploys about 28,000 troops here to deter a repeat invasion, and to enforce the 1953 armistice that halted the fighting.

Under the terms of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, U.S. forces would take command of South Korea's forces in the event of a renewed war with the North. Gates and Kim said their countries remain on track to turn wartime operational control of South Korea's forces over to Seoul by 2012.

Gates says U.S. forces will remain on the peninsula past that point, and well into the future.

"It is my expectation that we will continue to play a role in the security of the peninsula for a long time," he said.

South Korean officials say U.S. forces will remain here even if the 1953 North-South armistice is replaced by an eventual permanent peace arrangement.

A statement by the two defense chiefs also said the U.S. would continue to offer South Korea protection under the U.S. "nuclear umbrella." The stated aim of ongoing nuclear talks with North Korea is to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, but U.S. nuclear weapons maintained outside Korea continue to serve as a further deterrent.