(ATTN: UPDATES with more details in paras 11, 14-19; ADDS photo)
By Song Sang-ho and Chae Yun-hwan
SEOUL, Jan. 31 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday highlighted America's "ironclad" and "unwavering" security commitment to South Korea, as some raise doubts about Washington's "extended deterrence" commitment for the key ally amid evolving North Korean threats.
He said there would be more frequent deployments of such high-profile U.S. strategic assets as advanced stealth jets and aircraft carriers to Korea, speaking at a joint press conference with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Jong-sup, following bilateral talks in Seoul.
"Our commitment to the defense of the ROK remains ironclad, and the United States stands firm in its extended deterrence commitment," he said, referring to South Korea by its official name, the Republic of Korea.
"That includes the full range of U.S. defense capabilities, including our conventional, nuclear and missile defense capabilities. Now, we have 28,500 uniformed personnel in South Korea ... This shows our unwavering commitment," he added.
His remarks came after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un publicly called for an "exponential" increase in his country's nuclear arsenal and named the South an "undoubted" enemy at a December ruling party meeting.
Kim's rhetoric has added to a debate over whether the South should develop its own nuclear weapons or request the U.S.' redeployment of tactical nuclear arms to the Korean Peninsula.
In an apparent message to both Koreas, Austin stressed the goal of the "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
"The U.S. and the ROK are committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and we've long been that way," he said.
He added Washington's repetitive mantra of the "ironclad" security commitment is "not just a slogan." "It is what we're all about," he said.
As a vivid example of the U.S. commitment, the Pentagon chief recalled last year's deployment here of America's fifth-generation fighter jets, like F-22 and F-35 radar-evading fighter jets, and of an aircraft strike group.
"You can look for more of that kind of activity going forward," he said.
He also mentioned the allies' plan to hold table-top exercises to sharpen deterrence.
"We want to make sure that no stone is left unturned," he said.
The South Korean minister also said he agreed with Austin on expanding the scale and intensity of the allies' combined military drills so as to realize "peace through strength."
Austin reiterated the importance of three-way security partnerships involving Japan.
"Let me underscore our mutual belief that trilateral cooperation with Japan enhances all of our security," he said.
During their talks, Lee and Austin highlighted their commitment to facilitating the trilateral sharing of missile warning data in accordance with a summit agreement by the leaders of the South, the U.S. and Japan last November.
To that end, the two sides agreed to hold the Defense Trilateral talks, a senior-level meeting among the three nations, "at the earliest opportunity."
The allies' defense chiefs also "strongly" condemned the North's continued provocations, including recent drone incursions, according to their joint press release.
Lee and Austin had their last bilateral in-person talks at the annual Security Consultative Meeting at the Pentagon last November.
The Pentagon chief arrived here on Monday on a regional swing that will also take him to the Philippines.