WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel promised "unwavering" support from the United States to its ally South Korea after North Korea severed a military hotline with Seoul.
During a call with his South Korean counterpart Kim Kwan-Jin, Mr Hagel "reaffirmed the strength of the alliance, which has been, and continues to be, instrumental in maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula," Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement on Wednesday.
He also discussed "the unwavering United States commitment to our alliance with the Republic of Korea, especially during this time of heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula."
The two allies signed a new military pact last week to boost a joint response to any aggression from the North. About 28,500 US military forces are stationed in South Korea to counter the threat from the belligerent North.
Earlier, Mr Little criticised the North's decision to cut the hotline as a "provocative and unconstructive step."
"It's very important for the regime to focus on what we think is the right course of action, and that is peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, and their provocations and bellicose rhetoric aren't helpful in the situation," he added.
The decision to sever the last direct communication link with the South coincided with an announcement that the North's top leadership would meet in the next few days to discuss an "important issue" and make a "drastic turn."
The hotline move was relayed by a senior North Korean military official to his South Korean counterpart just before the link was severed.
"Under the situation where a war may break out any moment, there is no need to keep up North-South military communications," the official was quoted as saying by the official Korean Central News Agency.
Cutting the hotline was the latest in a series of threats and actions that have raised tensions on the Korean peninsula since the North's long-range rocket launch in December and its nuclear test last month.
Both events triggered UN sanctions that infuriated Pyongyang, which has spent the past month issuing increasingly bellicose statements about unleashing an "all-out war."
State Department acting deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Washington remained in close contact with its allies in the region as the situation unfolds.
A communications channel, which allows contact between North Korea and the United States even though they have no diplomatic ties, also remained open, he said.
"We remain prepared to engage constructively with North Korea, but North Korea must live up to its commitments, adhere to its international obligations, deal peacefully with its neighbours and refrain from this provocative action," Mr Ventrell told journalists.