SEOUL, South Korea, Dec. 8, 2010  -- Following what he called “a very full day of meaningful discussions” today with South Korean leaders, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff condemned North Korea’s acts of aggression and praised South Korea for demonstrating restraint to keep it from escalating.

Mullen and General Han Min-goo, chairman of the South Korean military, also announced following their consultative meeting that they had agreed to strengthen their joint efforts to deter further provocations and war.

The leaders condemned North Korea’s Nov. 23 “deliberate and illegal armed attack” on Yeonpyeong island.

Mullen noted that the attack, which killed two marines and two civilians, brings to 50 the number of South Koreans killed this year at North Korean hands. Forty-six South Korean sailors were killed March 26 when a North Korean torpedo sunk the South Korean frigate Cheonan.

“Rather than meet belligerence in kind, you chose to meet it with restraint and readiness,” Mullen told Han. “The poise you have demonstrated befits the true strength of your position and the character of your people.”

Mullen emphasized, however, that North Korea “should not mistake this restraint for lack of resolve” or a sign of South Korea’s “willingness to accept continue attacks to go unchallenged.”

Han said North Korea’s provocations have become increasingly bold and he foresees a situation that could require “an alliance-level response.” He said he and Mullen discussed plans that would provide “an instantaneous and very firm response” to a possible future attack.

Joint exercises last week off the peninsula’s west coast improved interoperability between the U.S. and South Korean militaries, Mullen said, while also sending North Korea “a strong signal of our intent to deter future acts of aggression.”

Mullen, responding to a reporter’s question, said South Korea, as a sovereign nation, “has every right to protect its people and to respond as it sees fit to effectively carry out that responsibility.”

“They also have the right to choose the method with which they respond,” he said.

However, Mullen emphasized that the true goal of the U.S.-South Korean alliance is to provide a deterrence that would make such retaliation unnecessary.

The chairman praised Han for his leadership during “difficult times” in building the capabilities required to provide that deterrent effect.

“Your readiness to defend your territory and your citizens is unmistakable, and my country’s commitment to helping you do that is unquestioned,” he said.

Mullen recognized that the United States has stood at South Korea’s side for the last six decades and told the South Koreans that President Barack Obama had sent assurances that “we will be at your side for many more.”

Today’s talks with Han, National Security Advisor Chun Yung-woo, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and 1st Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Shin Kak-soo took “a long-term view” of the alliance to ensure near-term actions are guided by the Strategic Alliance 2015 framework enacted in October, Mullen said. The talks also centered on “ensuring our plans, training and exercises are focused on full-spectrum operations to deter, and if necessary, defeat, a rapidly evolving threat,” he said.

“That is why I am here today, quite frankly, to address those challenges together, to explore new ways we can overcome them, together, and to reaffirm America’s resolve to ensuring together with South Korea our mutual security objectives on the peninsula and in the region,” he said.

Mullen said he looks forward to working with Army Gen. Walter “Skip” Sharp, the top U.S. military officer in South Korea, as he works with his South Korean counterparts to develop specific plans and exercises supporting these goals.