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SEOUL — The United States and South Korea will step up efforts to head off provocations and attacks from the North, the countries’ defense chiefs said Friday following annual security talks.

The talks were held on the last day of U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s weeklong visit to the Asia-Pacific region and resulted in the joint statement reaffirming the long-standing strategic alliance against the isolated, autocratic North Korean regime.

The U.S. contingent included Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. James Thurman, in addition to Panetta.

In a news conference following the talks, South Korean Defense Minster Kim Kwan-jin said he and Panetta had agreed the two countries should beef up operations in the volatile Northwest Islands, the site of several attacks by North Korea in recent years. A U.N. commission blamed North Korea for the March 2010 sinking of a South Korean military ship, and the North shelled a border island in the region in November.

“Next year, I believe that the possibility of North Korea conducting additional provocations is very high,” Kim said, citing the yearlong centennial celebration of the birth of the regime’s founder.

To prepare, South Korea and the U.S. are working on a joint counter-provocation plan, though Panetta stopped short of saying the U.S. would respond with its own military assets to provocations.

The defense chiefs also said they would increase readiness against cyberattacks from North Korea, which has developed a cyber command center and in recent weeks is believed to have launched attacks on South Korean banks.

“This is a whole new arena of threats we have to confront,” Panetta said. “We know what can be done to use cyber to threaten and to attack Korea. We know that cyber is now a weapon of the future in the battlefield of the future.”

Panetta and Kim also said South Korea is on track to take over wartime operational control, or OPCON, by 2015. The earlier goal of OPCON transition in 2012 was pushed back last year because of increased tensions on the peninsula.

The United States and South Korea will continue to push for the North to end its nuclear program, Panetta and Kim said. U.S.-North Korea talks in Geneva this week raised hopes of North Korea returning to the bargaining table in good faith, but no agreements have been announced.

“This is very important for North Korea to address if we’re hopeful of trying to establish better relations for the future,” Panetta said. “There’s no secret that denuclearization means they have to stop testing, they have to stop developing weapons, they have to stop enriching in violation of international rules and requirements, and they have to allow the [International Atomic Energy Agency] to go in and inspect those facilities.”

North Korea remains a serious threat to peace in a region of increasing relevance to the United States, Panetta said.

“I’m one who believes the economic and security future of the United States will largely rest in the Asia-Pacific region in the 21st century,” he said.

Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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