By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Jan. 21 (Yonhap) -- The defense ministry vowed Thursday to hold military talks with North Korea on a regular basis this year to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula, while beefing up defense capabilities to counter its evolving nuclear and missiles threats.
During a policy briefing session to President Moon Jae-in, Defense Minister Suh Wook also pledged to expedite work to retake the wartime operational control of its troops from Washington, and further boost communication with the United States under the new administration.
"We will strive to establish a firm readiness posture to deal with threats from all directions, and to fully implement the Sept. 19 military agreement," Suh said, according to the statement by the ministry.
The agreement refers to the Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA), which was signed in 2018 during an inter-Korean summit held in Pyongyang. It calls for a series of tension-reducing measures such as a halt to hostile acts against each other.
Under the pact, the two sides also agreed to form a joint military consultation body to discuss and oversee agreed-upon joint projects, such as the joint excavation of war remains inside the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and free movement inside the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom.
"For its full implementation, we will push to hold inter-Korean military meetings on a regular basis through the joint committee," Suh added.
The two Koreas have yet to launch the committee, though its establishment was first agreed upon in 1992.
Earlier this week, President Moon Jae-in said the two Koreas can discuss Seoul-Washington joint military exercises if necessary through such a channel, and the defense ministry later said that any pending inter-Korean military issues can be on the table to ease tensions.
The defense ministry also vowed to enhance its "counterfire capabilities" as preemptive measures against threats by the North.
"We will continue to secure key assets, such as powerful ballistic missiles and improved Cheolmae-II surface-to-air missile interceptors," the minister said.
To secure key capabilities of its own, the ministry earmarked 2.12 trillion won (US$1.93 billion) this year in addition to 6.38 trillion won to deal with nuclear and missile threats.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said during a party congress earlier this month that his country is developing new weapons systems, such as a nuclear-powered submarine, advanced warheads and hypersonic weapons, pledging to bolster its nuclear arsenal.
During a military parade to celebrate the party event, the communist country unveiled a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and an advanced ground-based ballistic missile.
"We will prepare for chances of North Korea undertaking provocation after the launch of the Biden administration. Substantial measures are needed to ease military tensions between the two sides and build trust," Suh said.
The envisioned OPCON transfer was also one of the ministry's key policy goals this year.
"We will seek active policy consultations in the early times of the Biden government to have it pay more attention to the OPCON transition and create circumstances for the achievement," the ministry said.
Seoul and Washington are working for the conditions-based OPCON transfer. Though the transition is not time-based, the current Moon Jae-in administration hopes to retake it within his term that ends in May 2022.
During an annual defense ministers' meeting last year, the two sides revealed differences, with Seoul calling for more efforts together to meet those conditions at an early date while the U.S. said it will take time.
The ministry also pledged to further promote consultations with the U.S. about key defense issues of mutual concern, such as the possible adjustment of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
"We will work to promote the mutual understanding with the U.S. about the roles of U.S. Forces Korea in preventing armed conflicts on the peninsula and regional peace and the need for its stationing," according to the ministry.
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