My first trip to South Korea as U.S. Secretary of Defense comes at a time when our two nations are making clear to the world that our alliance is strong and thriving. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama welcomed President Lee Myung-bak on a state visit, underscoring South Korea's emergence as a key global partner. During the visit, I had the opportunity to welcome Lee and Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin to the Pentagon for discussions about our security partnership, which has been a great force for peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. With this visit to Seoul, I look forward to continuing these discussions and seeking new ways to deepen and adapt our defense cooperation to meet new challenges.
The U.S.-South Korea alliance remains firmly rooted in a bilateral commitment to provide mutual security. I can vividly recall the moment when, as a boy, I heard the news that the U.S. was fighting on the Korean Peninsula. Americans were gripped with fear of another world war. Thanks to the heroism of U.S. and South Korean forces, however, the North's invasion was repelled, and six decades later the U.S. remains fully committed to the security of South Korea. Working together, our militaries will continue to deter North Korean aggression, and stand prepared to defeat the North should it ever force war upon us.
It is important to send this signal because North Korea remains a serious threat. Pyongyang has demonstrated its willingness to conduct provocations that target innocent lives. The North continues to defy the international community as it enhances its nuclear weapons and missile capabilities.
To bolster our combined defense posture, the alliance is developing our combined capabilities to address ballistic missile threats from the North, boosting intelligence and information sharing, and strengthening operational planning to counter North Korean provocations. We are also enhancing the ability of our forces to work together and strengthening our combined military exercise program to maintain readiness. These efforts deter North Korean aggression by demonstrating that we have the will and the means to defend South Korea.
The U.S. military presence in Korea and elsewhere in the region is critical to maintaining deterrence and communicating America's resolve to defend its allies. We will work closely with South Korea to ensure that our combined forces are properly equipped with appropriate capabilities and training. In addition, we will ensure a strong and effective nuclear umbrella over South Korea so that Pyongyang never misjudges our will and capability to respond decisively to nuclear aggression.
While committed to a robust presence in the region, the U.S. military constantly seeks ways to address local concerns about the impact of operations. Our relocation program for the Yongsan Garrison is one way that we are consolidating our presence to improve efficiency, minimize impact, and facilitate transition to South Korean leadership during a wartime situation. This transition will show Pyongyang that the path to peace on the peninsula rests foremost on improving relations with Seoul.
Even as we remain determined to fulfill our mutual security commitment, the U.S.-South Korea defense relationship is also growing into a more comprehensive strategic alliance; a future envisioned in a set of defense cooperation guidelines issued last year to chart the future course of this alliance. Already, we are cooperating together to promote peace and stability beyond the Korean Peninsula. South Koreans have served with honor in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in the Gulf of Aden, we are working as part of a multilateral coalition to protect vital shipping lanes from the threat of piracy.
As our alliance adapts, we will continue to look for opportunities to apply our shared strength to a wider range of security challenges. Our two countries are working with others to improve our ability to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, as well as to support UN-led activities to provide humanitarian relief and contribute to sound political and economic development, whether it is in Haiti, Sudan, or elsewhere.
The deepening alliance demonstrates the growing importance of South Korea and of the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. I believe that the economic and security future of the U.S. will largely rest in Asia in the 21st century, and that as a result the U.S. will continue to sustain its military presence and activities in the region even at a time of fiscal austerity. In this context, the U.S.-South Korea alliance will become even more central to our efforts to achieve shared security and prosperity. As a steward of this alliance, I am committed to further elevating this relationship so that it remains a hallmark of stability, openness, and prosperity in the region. Working together, I am confident that we can forge a safe and prosperous future for our citizens and future generations.
By U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta