Gates reaffirms Defense commitment to South Korea

In the face of the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons program, the United States will continue to provide deterrence in the "full range of military might," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday after two days of talks with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young.

The United States and South Korea recently held joint military exercises, initiated in response to the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan by North Korea in March, an attack that killed 46 crewmembers. These "Invincible Spirit" exercises focused primarily on anti-submarine tactics, and were intended to demonstrate military readiness in response to the North Korean aggression.

"North Korea's provocations and aggressions will not be tolerated," Gates said during a brief news conference at the end of the 42nd annual security meeting of the top U.S. and South Korean defense officials.

Neither Gates nor Kim commented on a Friday Washington Post report that North Korea may be farther along with plans to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Kim did address another issue involving weapons of mass destruction, telling reporters, "We are currently in the process of coordinating the details of immediate response in the case of a biological or chemical threat from North Korea."

According to the newspaper, a report released Friday by the Institute for Science and International Security says North Korea has moved beyond laboratory-scale work and is now capable of building "at the very least, a pilot-scale" plant of centrifuges to enrich uranium. North Korea is estimated to possess 500-1,000 centrifuges. Experts agree the country would need 3,000 centrifuges to make enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

Kim acknowledged news reports from North Korea Friday confirming that leader Kim Jong-il will be succeeded by one of his sons, Kim Jong-un.

"We cannot eliminate the possibility of a situation of instability in North Korea that would influence the security of both [U.S and South Korean] governments," Kim said. "It is the responsibility of both governments to prepare for all possible contingencies," he added.

Ahead of the G-20 economic summit to take place in Seoul next month, Gates and Kim stressed their "robust coordination" to ensure a successful event. Kim had said in previous statements that North Korea may have plans to disrupt the summit.

While so far there has been no significant threat from North Korea, "we will continue to watch," Kim said.

The bilateral meeting also covered the newly established 2015 date for South Korea to take back operational control on the peninsula, Gates said. The transfer was first scheduled for 2012 but South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and President Obama agreed in June to delay the transfer to 2015 after the sinking of the Cheonan.

This week's annual meeting falls 60 years after the Korean War, when the U.S.-led United Nations was initially handed peacetime and wartime operational control.

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