(Bloomberg) -- The US and South Korea are planning to step up the scale of their joint military exercises, a move that has in the past prompted threats and weapons tests by North Korea.
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US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and South Korean counterpart Lee Jong-sup agreed in talks Tuesday in Seoul to "further expand and bolster the level and scale of this year's combined exercises and training," the Department of Defense said in a statement.
The two also agreed to expand cooperation that includes Japan to better share information and coordinate responses to provocations from Pyongyang, which fired off a record number of ballistic missiles last year. North Korea for decades has denounced the joint drills as a prelude to an invasion and war.
"Our commitment to the defense of the ROK remains ironclad," Austin said, referring to South Korea by its formal name. "The United States stands firm in its extended deterrence commitment and that includes the full range of US defense capabilities including our conventional, nuclear and missile defense capabilities."
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office in May, brought back joint military exercises with his country's US ally. The drills had been scaled down or halted under former President Donald Trump, who was hoping the move would facilitate his nuclear negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump's three meetings with Kim from 2018, however, led to no concrete steps to wind down Pyongyang's nuclear program, which only grew in strength and size as the in-person diplomacy eventually fizzled. The former US president had repeatedly expressed frustration with the open-ended troop deployment, saying after a meeting with Kim in June 2018 that he would "like to bring them back home" but that's not part of the equation right now.
Kim pledged to increase his nuclear arsenal in the new year to stifle what his state saw as US and South Korean hostile acts, in a policy-setting address released on Jan. 1 where he left almost no opening for a return to long-stalled disarmament talks. The North Korean leader has shown no interest in returning to the talks that have been stalled for nearly three years, while pledging to never give up his atomic arsenal.
Despite the stance from the North Korean leader, Austin and Lee also reaffirmed the commitment of their countries to the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
The two will also hold the Deterrence Strategy Committee Table-Top Exercise in February aimed at facilitating "alliance discussions on deterrence and response options to deal with the DPRK nuclear threat," according to the joint statement. The table-top exercise will be the eighth such drill.
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