(ATTN: ADDS more details from joint statement, background info in paras 12, 15-16)
By Oh Seok-min and Kim Seung-yeon
SEOUL, Dec. 10 (Yonhap) -- Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo confirmed Tuesday that North Korea tested a rocket engine in what the regime called a "very important test" at its western satellite launching station over the weekend, calling on the communist country to stop such military acts.
Jeong's remark, made in Sydney after a biennial meeting of the foreign and defense ministers of the two countries, represented the first time that a government official has confirmed what the North tested Saturday at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, better known as the Dongchang-ri site.
"The defense ministers of South Korea and Australia expressed deep concern over North Korea's engine test in its Dongchang-ri areas and successive firings of ballistic missiles," Jeong said in his opening remarks during a joint press conference after the "two plus two meeting" with Australia, according to a text of his remarks provided by the ministry.
"(We) also urge North Korea to immediately stop such activities that heighten military tensions, and to meet efforts by South Korea and the United States, as well as the international community, to resolve issues through dialogue," he added.
Reporting the test on Sunday, the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) did not elaborate on details, and the defense ministry and military authorities here have simply said analysis is under way into what it tested.
But military sources and experts have said the North was believed to have tested a new high-thrust engine using liquid fuel with a goal to launch bigger, more powerful rockets for satellites or intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), as South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said that nothing has been fired from the site and recent satellite imagery shows signs of a missile engine test there.
Under U.N. Security Council resolutions, North Korea is banned from conducting tests that could be used to build ballistic missiles. Seoul and Washington have viewed North Korean satellite launches as cover for accumulating technology for long-range missiles.
The engine test is the latest in a series of the North's military acts amid stalled denuclearization talks with the U.S. So far this year, the communist country has conducted a total of 13 major weapons tests such as new types of short-range ballistic missiles and a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
It is feared to take more such provocative moves as the year-end deadline that Pyongyang set for Washington to come up with new proposals to move their talks forward is drawing near.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said the two sides shared an assessment that the North's recent acts do not help the current peace process on the Korean Peninsula and pledged to work together to keep the dialogue momentum alive.
"We further agreed to continue our close cooperation so that the hard-earned momentum of dialogue can bring about substantial progress towards complete denuclearization and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean peninsula through early resumption of U.S.-DPRK talks," she said in her opening remarks, referring to the North by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defense Minister Linda Reynolds also urged the communist country to "faithfully comply with its obligations under relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions," and to "make a sustained commitment" to talks with the U.S. and South Korea, according to the joint statement adopted following the meeting.
Aside from the North Korean issues, the two countries discussed ways to enhance cooperation for regional security, particularly in counter-proliferation, terrorism and cyberspace, Kang added.
They also consulted on ways to harmonize Korea's key New Southern Policy and Australia's Indo-Pacific Strategy and, to that end, the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding on development cooperation.
Jeong and Reynolds signed a memorandum of understanding that calls for enhancing cooperation to find the remains of soldiers who went missing during the 1950-53 Korean War.
During the three-year conflict, 178,569 South Korean and U.N. soldiers were killed and 42,769 others remain missing. Of them, 124,000 bodies, including 42 Australians, have yet to be retrieved, according to government data.
Ahead of the talks, the ministers visited the Korean War Memorial in Moore Park in Sydney and laid wreaths to pay their respects to Australian soldiers who fought in the war.
South Korea will host the next two plus two meeting in Seoul in 2021.
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