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Lee visits Pentagon, reaffirms alliance

USFK commander warns against underestimation of N.K. military

WASHINGTON D.C. ― President Lee Myung-bak visited the U.S. Pentagon on Wednesday on an unprecedented invitation underscoring Washington’s commitment to the bilateral security alliance.

As the first Korean president to visit the Pentagon, Lee was briefed by the U.S. military leadership on the security conditions surrounding the Korean Peninsula in a conference room called the Tank.

It was the first time a foreign head of state was briefed by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman in the Tank, Lee’s secretary for external strategies Kim Tae-hyo told reporters. The Tank is where the JCS chairman receives reports during wartime and issues operation orders.

In addition to U.S. JCS Chairman Martin Dempsey, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force attended the briefing for Lee, who was joined by Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, senior presidential secretary for foreign affairs and security Chun Young-woo and secretary for national security strategy Kim Tae-hyo.

The previously unscheduled event was organized as the U.S. invited Lee, who is on an official state visit, to brief him on Washington’s position regarding the security situation on the Korean Peninsula, Lee’s office said.

“The U.S. government’s invitation of President Lee to the Pentagon is understood as an act of showing respect to its ally Korea and reaffirming the firm U.S. commitment to security on the peninsula,” Cheong Wa Dae said.

Dempsey said the U.S. military will make sure it is prepared for any contingency on the peninsula, according to Kim.

Also on Wednesday, U.S. Forces Korea commander James Thurman warned against an underestimation of the North Korean military, saying that 70 percent of the country’s armed forces were stationed along the Demilitarized Zone.

Mentioning that the size of the North Korean military was the fourth largest in the world, Thurman said during a seminar hosted by a U.S. army association in Washington D.C. that anyone who calls for reducing defense support of South Korea would not be a soldier.

Thurman also said the Korean Peninsula was of indispensable value for the U.S. in maintaining its strategic position in Northeast Asia.

The South Korean military has stepped up vigilance against possible North Korean provocations after the communist nation showed signs of unusual military movements along the tense western sea border, an official in Seoul said Wednesday.

The South has confirmed that the North has deployed an unidentified number of fighter jets to a front-line base near the maritime border in the West Sea and moved ground-to-air missiles to a region north of the South’s northernmost island of Baengyeong, the official said.

Also detected were movements of movable launch pads at a surface-to-ship missile base, he said.

These signs appear to be similar to the situation shortly before the North shelled the South’s border island of Yeonpyeong in November last year, a surprise attack that killed two South Korean Marines and two South Korean civilians, officials said.

In response, the South’s JCS has strengthened monitoring of the tense sea border and elevated the level of military preparedness of the Army, Navy and Air Force, officials said.

Panetta is scheduled to visit South Korea later this month for an annual Security Consultative Meeting with Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin in his first Asia trip since taking office in July.

“Secretary Panetta will make his first trip to the Asia-Pacific region Oct. 21-28, making stops in Bali, Indonesia, Tokyo, Japan and Seoul, (South) Korea,“ Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a department spokeswoman, said in a brief press release.

Panetta, a former director of the CIA who succeeded Robert Gates as the U.S. defense chief in July, is also scheduled to have Cabinet-level discussions in the other nations, Hull-Ryde said.

By Kim So-hyun, Korea Herald correspondent