Seoul: US Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Tuesday that he and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will make an unprecedented trip together to the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas.
Gates said he and Clinton will visit the DMZ on Wednesday, meeting with U.S. and South Korean troops protecting one of the world`s most heavily fortified borders. It would be the first time the United States` top diplomat and defense chief visit the DMZ together.
The two Koreas technically remain in a state of war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953. The U.S., which fought on the South Korean side, keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea to protect its ally against any aggression.
"Tomorrow Secretary Clinton and I, along with our Korean counterparts, will visit the DMZ to highlight how important operations are there to the security of the peninsula as well as the region and demonstrate our steadfast commitment" to South Korea, Gates said during a visit Tuesday morning to Camp Casey, a U.S. base near the DMZ.
Gates` trip, which began Monday night, comes amid continuing tension on the Korean peninsula over the March 26 sinking of a South Korean warship.
An international investigation concluded in May that a North Korean submarine fired a torpedo that sank the warship near the tense Korean sea border, killing 46 South Korean sailors. North Korea flatly denies the accusations, and has warned any punishment would trigger war.
Gates was to meet later Tuesday with his South Korean counterpart, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young.
On Wednesday, Gates will be joined by Clinton for the DMZ visit and high-profile security talks with their South Korean colleagues — a meeting meant to underscore Washington`s firm alliance with Seoul as the two nations plan military exercises in a message of deterrence to North Korea.
The talks initially were arranged to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War and to discuss long-term strategies in the bilateral alliance.
The U.S. and South Korea are expected to approve a proposed series of joint military exercise including new naval training off the west and east coasts, officials said.
"All of these exercises are defensive in nature, but will send a clear message of deterrence to North Korea and demonstrate our steadfast commitment to the defense of South Korea," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said last week in Washington.