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In South Korea, Panetta affirms U.S. commitment to Asia

October 27, 2011 |  1:15 am

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta met with South Korean leaders
This post has been corrected. See the note that the bottom for details.

REPORTING FROM SEOUL -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta met with South Korean leaders Thursday as part of a regional swing to reassure allies that the American troop presence in Asia will not diminish despite looming cuts in Washington's military budget.

During previous stops in Indonesia and Japan, Panetta -– on his first foray to Asia as defense secretary -– stressed that as the U.S. was winding down wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it remained poised to focus on such looming threats as North Korea’s nuclear program. He also noted China's 1.25 million ground troops, the world's largest force.

The Asia-Pacific region, Panetta said, will remain a central part of U.S. national security strategy.

Panetta, the Obama administration’s former CIA director, met Wednesday with U.S. commanders and troops and will also consult with leaders of U.S.-South Korea joint security forces and meet with President Lee Myung-bak during his three-day visit, which ends Friday.

Panetta's arrival in Seoul comes as U.S. and North Korean diplomats wrapped up preliminary talks in Geneva about resuming negotiations over the possible dismantling of North Korea's nuclear program. Although both sides insist that progress was made, no date has been set for follow-up talks. The U.S. delegation to the Geneva talks were headed by Stephen Bosworth, the outgoing special representative for North Korea policy.

On Thursday, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell made a surprise, unscheduled stop in Seoul. Analysts called the  visit a likely attempt to reduce increasing nervousness among South Korean officials as the U.S. begins to engage North Korea in one-on-one talks.

South Korea's Lee has set a policy not to directly engage Pyongyang. Officials recently turned down a consortium of South Korea-based non-government organizations that wanted to visit the North to assess aid needs there.

"We did make progress, but there's a lot of work that still needs to be done," Campbell said of the Geneva talks. "We're here to talk to our South Korean allies and plot our course to go forward."

Addressing 300 U.S. and South Korean troops at the Yongsan army post here, Panetta said North Korea remained a "serious threat" and vowed that the U.S. would keep a "nuclear umbrella" over its close ally to deter continued threats from South Korea's often-belligerent northern neighbor.

He later met with Army Gen. J.D. Thurman, commander of U.S. Forces Korea.

The U.S. plans to maintain its present level of 28,500 troops in South Korea –- a force that has been a steady presence since a truce ended the Korean War in 1953 without a formal peace treaty.

In an opinion article published in South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper before his arrival, Panetta insisted that the U.S. and South Korea are developing better measures to defend against North Korean missile threats. The allies, he said, were boosting intelligence sharing and "strengthening" planning to counter North Korean provocations.

"Working together, our militaries will continue to deter North Korean aggression, and stand prepared to defeat the North should it ever force war upon us." Panetta wrote. "It is important to send this signal because North Korea remains a serious threat. Pyongyang has demonstrated its willingness to conduct provocations that target innocent lives."

Earlier, in Bali, Panetta met with the defense ministers of nearly a dozen nations that make up the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). He said the U.S. would maintain its present complement of 85,000 troops in the Asia-Pacific region.

Although he gave no specifics, Panetta said the U.S. intends to "strengthen our position" in the region.

For the record: 6:10 p.m. Oct. 27: A previous version of this story said that the U.S. delegation to talks with North Korean officials in Geneva was headed by Kurt Campbell. It was led by Stephen Bosworth.


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Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, second from left, and his South Korean counterpart, Kim Kwan-jin, second from right; U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, left; and Chairman of South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff Jung Seung-jo, right, salute during an honor guard ceremony Thursday at the Defense Ministry in Seoul. Credit: Associated Press