THE United States and South Korea have mounted a show of naval strength to deter North Korea following its deadly shelling attack.
The four-day exercise involving around a dozen warships including a US aircraft carrier began this morning, Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said, despite Pyongyang’s warning of unpredictable consequences.
It started five days after the North stunned the world by launching a barrage of shells and rockets at a South Korean border island, killing two marines and two civilians and setting homes and forests ablaze.
Washington insists that the drill, which has been criticised by Beijing, is defensive in nature and was planned long before last week’s attack, but says it is intended to send a message of deterrence to the North.
The drill involving at least 11 major warships and thousands of service personnel was taking place off South Korea’s southwest coast, far from the flashpoint inter-Korean border, according to coordinates given by Seoul officials.
“If the US brings its carrier to the West Sea of Korea (Yellow Sea) at last, no one can predict the ensuing consequences,” the North’s official news agency said yesterday, in the latest of a series of warnings following Tuesday’s bombardment.
The drill is one of a series announced in May, after a Seoul-led multinational investigation found overwhelming evidence that a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean warship earlier in the year.
That incident, which cost 46 lives, sparked anger in the South. But Tuesday’s bombardment – the first time the South’s civilian areas have been shelled since the 1950-53 war – was seen as more shocking.
The North claims it acted in retaliation to a South Korean firing drill in what it regards as its own waters around the contested border.
On Saturday it said the two civilian deaths were “if true … very regrettable”.
But it also charged that civilians on Yeonpyeong island, which is home to a marine base, had been used as “human shields” by being placed near artillery positions.
Pyongyang has warned that the new war games mean the peninsula “is inching closer to the brink of war”. It regularly uses such rhetoric and it was unclear whether it would try to disrupt the drill in any way.
South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak warned yesterday “there is a possibility that North Korea might commit wayward acts during the exercise”, according to his spokesman.
Mr Lee has come under pressure to take a tougher line against the North after the military’s counter-fire last week was seen as feeble. His defence minister quit on Thursday to take responsibility.
“The intensity of the (naval) exercise will be greater than had been planned,” Yonhap news agency quoted a Seoul military source as saying.
“Participating forces will carry out firing and bombing drills.”
The 97,000-ton carrier George Washington can carry about 75 aircraft on its 1.8 hectare flight deck and has a crew of 5500.
Also taking part on the US side was an embarked carrier air wing and vessels the USS Cowpens, Lassen, Stethem and Fitzgerald, according to information provided earlier.
Six South Korean warships, including a 7600-ton Aegis-class destroyer, two 4500-ton destroyers and frigates, as well as anti-submarine aircraft were joining the drill, a JSC spokesman said.
The drill will also involve a high-flying US J-STARS (joint surveillance and target attack system) surveillance aircraft to monitor the North’s military moves, Yonhap reported.
“J-STARS has been deployed to the drill today… the aircraft will monitor (potential) ground targets of the North Korean military,” it quoted a senior government official as saying. The JCS declined to confirm the report.
The exercise has raised tensions between Washington and Beijing, which regards the Yellow Sea as its backyard and has refrained from condemning its ally Pyongyang over Tuesday’s attack.
Washington has stressed that the manoeuvres are not aimed against China, which hosts stalled six-party talks seeking an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
China’s state councillor Dai Bingguo travelled to Seoul yesterday and held talks with Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan.
He will meet Mr Lee later today, a presidential spokeswoman said without giving details.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi held phone talks yesterday with his Japanese and Russian counterparts.