By Byun Duk-kun
WASHINGTON, Jan. 31 (Yonhap) -- The defense chiefs of South Korea and the United States have agreed to further expand the countries' joint military exercises amid intensifying North Korean provocations, they said in a joint statement released Tuesday.
South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also agreed to continue taking strong steps against North Korean provocations.
"The two leaders also pledged to further expand and bolster the level and scale of this year's combined exercises and training," said the joint statement released by the U.S. Department of Defense.
"To this end, the two leaders concurred on the need to take into account changes in the security environment, including the DPRK's recent steps with respect to its nuclear and missile programs, to strengthen combined exercises and training, including the upcoming combined bilateral exercises," it added.
DPRK stands for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North's official name.
Lee and Austin held a bilateral meeting in Seoul on Tuesday (Seoul time). The U.S. defense chief is on a trip to the region that will also take him to the Philippines.
North Korea fired 69 ballistic missiles, including eight intercontinental ballistic missiles, in 2022 alone, marking a new annual record that far exceeded the previous record of 25 ballistic missiles launched in a year.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has also called for "exponential" growth of his country's nuclear arsenal, while Pyongyang said in September that its new nuclear law would allow it to "preemptively" use its nuclear weapons against South Korea and the U.S. in case of any contingency.
Lee and Austin strongly condemned the North's continued provocations and violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions, which prohibit North Korea from ballistic missile testing, according to their joint statement.
"They also affirmed that the ROK-U.S. alliance, along with the international community, will continue to take a strong stance against any further provocations by the DPRK," it said.
The defense chiefs also reaffirmed measures to enhance the implementation of U.S. extended deterrence to underscore the U.S. security commitment to South Korea, according to their joint statement.
To this end, the countries will hold the Deterrence Strategy Committee table-top exercise next month, "in order to facilitate alliance discussions on deterrence and response options to deal with the DPRK nuclear threat," it said.
"Minister Lee and Secretary Austin also discussed measures to strengthen regional security cooperation including ROK-U.S.-Japan trilateral security cooperation," it added.