WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. defense chief expressed relief Wednesday that North Korea has not followed through on a threat to launch a military strike in response to South Korean activists floating anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border.
Leon Panetta said the U.S. and its ally South Korea would continue to watch for provocations from the North, and would be prepared to respond if they take place.
Panetta was speaking at a news conference following security talks at the Pentagon with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin that focused on North Korea.
The U.S. has nearly 30,000 troops on the southern side of the divided Korean Peninsula, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
South Korean activists, mostly North Korean defectors, on Monday floated balloons carrying tens of thousands of leaflets critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The activists eluded South Korean police trying to stop them because of the North Korean threats.
South Korea has pledged to retaliate if attacked.
Panetta said North Korea remains a serious threat to regional and global security, and that the U.S. would work with its friends in the region to protect against missile threats from the North.
Earlier this month, the U.S. agreed to let South Korea possess longer-range missiles capable of hitting all of North Korea, easing a restriction that had made the South's capability inferior to the North's. The U.S. in September also agreed to a new early-warning radar system for Japan.
Panetta said the U.S. still did not know if Kim Jong Un, who is believed to be in his 20s, would be a different kind of leader than his father, Kim Jong Il,who died last December.
"The concern we have is that they continue to prepare for a missile test, they continue to prepare for a nuclear test and they continue to engage in enrichment of unranium against all international rules. They continue to behave in a provocative way that threatens the security of our country, obviously South Korea, and the region," Panetta said.
The South Korean minister said the North Korean leader is trying to introduce economic reforms but is also sticking to his father's "military first" policy.
Speaking through an interpreter, Kim Kwan-jin told reporters that in Wednesday's talks, the U.S. reaffirmed it would maintain its current level of forces in South Korea, and rapidly provide "overwhelming reinforcements in the event of contingencies."
Ties between the rival Koreas were badly strained after two deadly attacks blamed on North Korea killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.
Efforts by the U.S. to negotiate a freeze in the North's nuclear program fell flat this year after the North conducted a long-range rocket test in April in defiance of a U.N. ban.
Despite signs of preparations, the North has not conducted a nuclear test this year, following those it carried out in 2006 and 2009.