U.S. to bolster South Korean defenses

South Korea says North Korea is responsible for the torpedo attack that killed 46 sailors aboard the Cheonan in March.
By John Pomfret
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

BEIJING -- The Obama administration announced Monday that it would bolster South Korea's defenses and initiate joint military exercises with Seoul because of growing tensions with the North over the sinking of one of South Korea's warships.

In twin announcements, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the White House said U.S. forces in South Korea had been directed to "coordinate closely with their Korean counterparts to ensure readiness and to deter future aggression."

"U.S. support for South Korea's defense is unequivocal," the White House statement said.

Seoul has steered clear of threatening specific military retaliation since blaming the North for the March 26 attack on its warship -- which left 46 South Korean sailors dead. Still, moves by the South and the United States make clear that they are including a significant military component in their response.

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said Monday that his country would launch a joint anti-submarine military exercise with the United States and join a U.S.-led anti-proliferation program, known as the Proliferation of Security Initiative, that South Korea had previously been reluctant to take part in to avoid provoking the North.

In addition, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak vowed that his country's military would learn from the mistakes that allowed what was thought to be a North Korean mini-submarine to approach the Cheonan and split it in two with a torpedo.

"The discipline of the armed forces will be reestablished, military reform efforts will be expedited and combat capabilities will be reinforced drastically," Lee said in a speech to the nation Monday. He said that the U.S.-Korean military alliance -- almost 29,000 U.S. troops are deployed in South Korea -- would be strengthened.

At the United Nations, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who served previously as South Korea's foreign minister, issued an unusually tough statement saying the evidence of North Korean culpability in the torpedo attack was "overwhelming and deeply troubling. I fully share the widespread condemnation of the incident.

"I am confident that the [Security Council], in fulfilling its responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, will take measures appropriate to the gravity of the situation," Ban said.

Lee's main moves against North Korea have involved trade. On Monday, he said the South would block all imports and exports with North Korea and cut off some investments; South Korean waters were closed to North Korean ships as well. About 60 North Korean ships a month pass through South Korea's water, South Korea's government said.

Lee's trade embargo will cost North Korea almost $500 million -- one-tenth of its total exports, the South Korean government estimated -- and $326 million in imports.

The trade ban excluded the industrial enclave at Kaesong, where South Koreans run factories in the North, in part because it is home to more than 1,000 South Koreans. Factories at Kaesong account for most of the $1.7 billion in annual trade on the peninsula.

Speaking to reporters in Beijing, Clinton described the situation on the peninsula as "highly precarious," but she added that the United States was trying to stabilize the situation.

"We are working hard to avoid an escalation of belligerence and provocation," Clinton told reporters on the sidelines of meetings in Beijing. "This is a highly precarious situation that the North Koreans have caused in the region. And it is one that every country that neighbors or is in proximity to North Korea understands must be contained."

Clinton said she was having "intensive consultations" with China about the issue, but it appeared that China did not want to take sides in the fight. Speaking to reporters, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said that Beijing's position was "very clear" on the sinking of the Cheonan and that both sides should "exercise restraint and remain coolheaded."

Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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