(ATTN: CORRECTS title in lead)
By Byun Duk-kun
WASHINGTON, Jan. 28 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin remains committed to maintaining the readiness of American troops in South Korea through military exercises, a Pentagon official said Thursday.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby also highlighted the importance of troop readiness amid North Korea's continued pursuit of new advanced weapons, such as the submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
"We recognize the value of training and exercises to keep forces ready, and no place is that more important than on the Korean Peninsula," he told a press briefing.
"I mean the ready to fight tonight is not just a slogan. It actually means something there on the peninsula, and the secretary is committed to that," Kirby added.
His remarks come after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called earlier for an end to joint military exercises of South Korea and the United States, arguing that such drills run counter to peace agreements between the two sides.
At issue is whether the South and the U.S. will hold their annual springtime exercises amid concerns the drills could give North Korea a pretext for provocations in the early months of U.S. President Joe Biden's administration.
South Korea's defense minister, Suh Wook, said earlier this week that the annual springtime exercises with the U.S. will go ahead as planned, stressing that the computer-simulated drills are purely defensive in nature.
Joint military exercises had sometimes been reduced in size or altogether canceled amid a rare thaw in relations between Washington and Pyongyang over the past two years, highlighted by two bilateral summits between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un held in June 2018 and February 2019.
Kirby insisted the U.S. troops were still able to get enough training.
"I don't want to speak for Gen. Abrams, but my understanding is that they were still able to exercise and to train at a level that kept a readiness capability intact," he said, referring to USFK Commander Gen. Robert Abrams.
"What that exercise regime is going to look like specifically going forward, I am just not prepared to tell you. But we fully understand the need to stay ready, and we're going to be committed to that," he added.
Kirby also highlighted the importance of readiness against North Korea's new weapons systems.
"I am not going to get into assessment of specific weapon systems now. All I will say is we are certainly mindful of Pyongyang's desire to advance their military capabilities. We know exactly what those military capabilities are designed to do," he said when asked what the U.S. thought about the North's development of a SLBM.
Pyongyang unveiled a new SLBM at a military parade marking the founding anniversary of its ruling Workers' Party in October.
"We are going to continue to make sure that we have the readiness posture we need on the Korean Peninsula," Kirby told the press briefing.
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