(ATTN: UPDATES with more details in last 2 paras)
SEOUL, Feb. 7 (Yonhap) -- South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and new U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson affirmed their countries' commitment to toughen the bilateral alliance under the Trump administration in their first phone conversation on Tuesday, the foreign ministry said.
The 25-minute talks early in the morning followed Tillerson's swearing-in a week ago and came as the allies scrambled to brush aside President Donald Trump's berating remarks on South Korea's defense cost sharing during the campaign.
The top diplomats "vowed to continue efforts to make the South Korea-U.S. relations the strongest alliance under the new U.S. administration in order to be able to respond effectively to challenges posed by North Korea and its nuclear ambitions," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
Tillerson hailed the South Korea-U.S. alliance as the pivot for peace and prosperity in the Asian-Pacific region and vowed that the U.S.' commitment to defending South Korea will remain "steadfast," the ministry said.
The U.S. secretary also urged efforts to further reinforce bilateral collaboration in sectors outside of defense, the ministry noted.
During the talks, the officials also reaffirmed their plan to deploy the American missile interceptor Terminal-High Altitude Area Defense to South Korea by the end of this year as the countries previously agreed.
"Both sides concurred that the THAAD deployment is a defensive action to guard only against North Korean threats and it does not infringe upon the interest of any other countries," the ministry said.
The South Korean minister warned that the North Korean nuclear issue will be the most urgent security challenge the new Trump administration faces, calling for more frequent consultations with Tillerson to tackle the situation.
Yun also appealed for steadfast maintenance of the countries' strong diplomatic response and sanctions over the North's nuclear and missile development programs.
Tillerson echoed Yun's positions, calling the North Korean nuclear program and its continued military provocations an "immediate threat" both to the U.S. and South Korea. He said the issue will be foremost in his face-to-face talks with Yun in the near future.
Also reaffirmed during the phone conversation was the top diplomats' commitment to encourage a bigger role by China in resolving the nuclear standoff, the ministry said. "Both sides shared the understanding that China's role is more important than anything in bringing out North Korea to the path of denuclerization," it said.
The top diplomatic officials then agreed to meet in person before the end of February to discuss ways to pursue Tuesday's dialogue in more detail, according to the ministry.
Foreign ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck said later that the two countries are currently in discussion to arrange the date for face-to-face talks between Yun and Tillerson.
"For now, such a meeting is likely to occur on the sidelines of multilateral meetings scheduled for February in Germany," the spokesman said, referring to the meeting of the foreign ministers from the Group of 20 countries slated for Feb. 16-17 in Bonn and the subsequent Munich Security Conference set for Feb. 17-19.
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