Panetta to visit Asia later this month

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will make his first trip to Asia as Pentagon chief later this month, as the U.S. works to bolster its relations with countries in the region.

Pentagon press secretary George Little says Panetta will meet with leaders in Bali, South Korea and Japan.

The Asia-Pacific is of growing importance to U.S. national security interests, particularly as part of an effort to balance China’s broadening power in the region.

Panetta’s visit to Seoul will likely include talks about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, as well as the escalating tensions between the north and south. Animosity has run high between the Koreas since two deadly attacks blamed on North Korea last year — the sinking of a warship in March and an artillery barrage that killed four in November.