U.S. military leaders in S.Korea for talks over N.Korea, alliance

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin attends a NATO Defence Ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, October 21, 2021. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol/File Photo

SEOUL (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and other top military officials were set to gather in South Korea on Wednesday to discuss the future of their military alliance and plans to counter threats from North Korea.

Austin was due to arrive on Wednesday afternoon, while General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived earlier.

The two were scheduled to participate in annual consultative meetings with South Korea, which hosts around 28,500 American troops as a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty.

The meetings are the first official "Security Consultative Meeting" between the allies since U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January.

Seoul is seeking to persuade Washington to back an "end of war declaration" as a way to jumpstart stalled denuclearisation talks with North Korea. U.S. officials have signalled support for such a declaration, but say there may be disagreements with South Korea over the sequence of such measures.

North Korea accuses South Korea and the United States of driving tensions with their joint military activities, while the allies say their forces are needed to deter the North.

Another issue expected to top the agenda in Seoul is South Korea's efforts to win wartime "operational control" of combined military forces. Currently, a U.S. general would command those forces during a war.

That transition has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to key military drills and other meetings being cancelled.

On Wednesday, Milley met with General In-Choul Won, South Korea's Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to joint statement.

"During the discussions, General Milley and General Won recognised the enduring alliance and highlighted significant advancements made to strengthen cooperation," the statement said.

Milley also emphasized the United States' commitment to providing "extended deterrence" to South Korea, a reference to Washington's vow to defend its ally with nuclear weapons if necessary.

Austin is scheduled to meet with Defence Minister Suh Wook on Thursday, as well as attend ceremonial events.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Writing by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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