Jo Yong-Hak, Pool, Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea — The U.S. and South Korean defense chiefs declared Friday that any North Korean aggression "is not to be tolerated," following two deadly incidents last year, and pledged to jointly develop more effective means of responding to future provocations by the North.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his South Korean counterpart, Kim Kwan-jin, told a news conference at the Ministry of Defense that they also decided to increase "combined watch activities" in advance of an international summit planned for Seoul next spring. They did not elaborate, but the statement appeared to mean they would boost intelligence gathering and surveillance.
The two sides issued a joint statement reaffirming their solidarity and vigilance against a potential attack by the North.
"The minister and the secretary urged North Korea to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs," they said, and urged the North to "demonstrate its genuine will" to give up its nuclear ambitions through "concrete actions."
U.S. and North Korean diplomats held talks this week in Geneva to explore a possible resumption of international negotiations over the North's nuclear program, but despite reports of modest progress there was no word on when additional discussions might be held.
Earlier, Panetta expressed doubt that diplomacy will persuade North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons and he raised the prospect of stalemate leading to "escalation and confrontation."
After daylong meetings with South Korea's government leaders, Panetta told reporters he was concerned by North Korea's pattern of deliberately shifting from periods of modest accommodation with the West to episodes of violent aggression, perhaps with no real intention of giving up its nuclear ambitions.
Tensions remain high on the Korean peninsula, largely stemming from the North's deadly bombardment of a front-line South Korean island that killed four people in November. The South also holds the North culpable for the deaths of 46 sailors on a South Korean warship that sank in March last year.
Asked whether he thinks a renewed effort by the Obama administration to explore a possible new round of international negotiations with North Korea will work, Panetta was blunt.
"We're not sure where those talks are headed at this point," he said, referring to the Geneva discussions North Korean diplomats,, where there was no apparent breakthrough.
"For that reason, I guess the word 'skepticism' would be in order," he said.
The Pentagon chief said he believes, nonetheless, that efforts at a diplomatic solution must go on.
"On the one hand, we have to engage," he said. "We have to try to seek the hope that ultimately they'll do the right thing and join the international family of nations. ... But I think we always have to be cautious that at the same time, they're going to continue to develop their nuclear capability."
In the same session with reporters, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, Army Gen. J.D. Thurman, indicated that he suspects the North Koreans are determined to keep up the expansion of their nuclear capabilities.
"Based on what I have observed, they show a willingness to continue to develop and test capabilities that can be associated with their nuclear program," Thurman said. "This is something we've got to remain vigilant on."
Separately, the State Department's top Asia policy official, Kurt Campbell, was in the South Korean capital on Thursday to brief officials on the Geneva talks.
North Korea's foreign ministry issued a statement saying the talks "helped deepen each other's understanding." The statement said both sides agreed to further talks on whether to resume the international discussions involving North and South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States.
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