WASHINGTON, Oct. 17, 2008 – U.S. and South Korean defense officials reaffirmed the two nations’ commitment to keep the defense alliance strong and to continue transforming to meet 21st-century defense needs. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and South Korean National Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee spoke at the conclusion of the 40th U.S.-Republic of Korea Defense Consultative Talks here.

North Korea remains the threat in the region, and the United States reaffirmed its commitment to defend the republic including extending the U.S. nuclear umbrella to the country, Gates said.

The Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and South Korea is a “vibrant reflection of the common values and aspirations of our peoples,” the secretary said. “It remains vital to the interests of both of our nations and will continue to be the foundation for an enduring resolute and capable defense of the Republic of Korea.”

Gates said the North Korean nuclear and conventional threats continue to be focal points of the treaty’s deterrent and defense posture.

“We urge a swift resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue through the Six-Party Talks process,” he said. The talks – with South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States – seek to engage North Korea and convince the leaders of the repressive state to shut down its nuclear weapons production system and stop proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Gates thanked Lee for his country’s support in Iraq and Afghanistan. South Korea has sent troops that have contributed significantly to stability and reconstruction.

The two men also discussed the transformation and realignment of U.S. Forces Korea, and the transition of wartime operational control of South Korean forces to South Korea on April 17, 2012. They also discussed strengthening wartime preparedness.

“Korea and the United States will guarantee peace on the peninsula and stability in the region through an unwavering, strong combined defense posture in the present as well as the future,” Lee said through a translator.

The agreement reaffirms that the United States will continue to field defense capabilities until they are no longer needed.

“We will maintain the same defense capabilities before, during and after the transfer of wartime operational control, and we will continue to adjust through regular evaluations and inspections of the readiness situation and readiness status,” Lee said.

The minister said the alliance is monitoring the health of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, but made light of the reports he is ill.

“I think we should not pay too much attention to KJI’s health,” Lee said. “I believe he is probably enjoying this newfound attention, and if we show him too much attention, then we might spoil him.”

Still, the North Korean leader’s health has significant implications for security, and intelligence agencies are monitoring the situation closely. Lee said Kim Jong-il still has control of North Korea.

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