WASHINGTON– With a handover of the security lead looming on the horizon, the U.S.-South Korean security alliance has grown tighter this year in the wake of provocations by North Korea, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea said today.

Army Gen. Walter “Skip” Sharp, whose command will oversee the joint security force on the Korean peninsula for just over two more years, characterized nuclear weapons testing by Pyongyang as leading to improved coordination between the United States and South Korea.

“All the provocations from North Korea this year actually made us stronger, because we were able to deal with real-world things on a daily basis, to be able to make sure that our intel was well coordinated between the United States and the Republic of Korea,” he said in an interview with the Pentagon Channel.

North Korea received widespread international condemnation for conducting a missile launch in April, which it followed with a second nuclear test. It subsequently backed out of six-party talks, a dialogue that President Barack Obama underscored last month as needing to resume as soon as possible.

In addition to improvement in military coordination between the United States — which has some 28,500 troops on the peninsula — and its South Korean counterparts, Pyongyang’s behavior also further aligned their bilateral diplomatic efforts, Sharp said.

“[We made sure] that our operations — in what we say and do — were coordinated from a military perspective and also from an embassy perspective,” he said.

Sharp’s chief priority on the peninsula, he said, is to keep the joint forces prepared to defend against potential security threats.

“The first [priority] is to be prepared to fight and win,” he said. “And we have really progressed in our ability through our exercise program in working very closely with [South Korea] in order to have a stronger combined defense,” he said.

Sharp said he is focused on further strengthening the bilateral alliance ahead of a planned transfer from the United States to South Korean authority slated for April 2012. At that point, South Korea will have command over the joint force in the event of armed conflict.

South Korea’s military is on track to assume the lead during the April 17, 2012, handover, Sharp said yesterday at the Center for Strategy and International Studies.

“The Republic of Korea military is professional and strong enough that they will be the lead and we will commit to that alliance,” he said. South Korea has more than 600,000 active duty troops, and it has continued efforts to modernize its military since the 1980s.

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