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U.S. debates joining S. Korean military exercises

By John Pomfret
Saturday, June 19, 2010; A11

The Obama administration is wrestling over whether to send an aircraft carrier to take part in military exercises with South Korea in what would amount to a significant show of force after the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in March.

The back-and-forth over the USS George Washington reflects the precarious security situation in Northeast Asia after North Korea's sinking of the Cheonan on March 26. It underscores a huge issue facing U.S. and South Korean officials: how to stop North Korea, which is believed to possess nuclear weapons, from conducting conventional attacks such as the torpedoing of the Cheonan.

Some within the administration are arguing that dispatching the 97,000-ton carrier to the Yellow Sea off the Korean Peninsula, where the Cheonan was sunk, could anger China or cause North Korea to react violently, according to officials involved in the discussions. Others say the United States needs to send a clear message to its allies and to North Korea and China that the United States is standing firmly behind the South.

"It's a very tough call," said Susan Shirk, a former State Department official and an expert on Asian security at the University of California at San Diego. "You don't want to be too proactive. But you need to send a clear message."

Reports that the United States would send the aircraft carrier battle group surfaced in early June after Washington and Seoul decided to conduct more intensive joint military exercises in response to the attack, which killed 46 South Korean sailors.

On Friday, the Korea Times repeated earlier reports that the George Washington was being sent, citing an unidentified official at the Ministry of Defense. A Pentagon spokesman said no decision had been made.

"I think it's a question of the U.S. and South Korea working out what we want to do together and when we want to do it," said a senior administration official. And as for China, he said, "we'll make sure that they're not surprised."

An international team of experts assembled by South Korea amassed overwhelming evidence that a North Korean mini-submarine sank the Cheonan with a torpedo.

South Korea has since pushed the U.N. Security Council to take up the issue, has cut most ties to North Korea and has sought support from its neighbors to punish Pyongyang.

Still, Evan A. Feigenbaum, a former State Department official now at the Council on Foreign Relations, said North Korea has faced few consequences for its actions.

South Korea has received strong backing from Japan, but China has been cool to its entreaties. China waited almost a month to offer condolences after the deaths aboard the Cheonan and has yet to accept the contents of the report. North Korea has denied involvement in the incident.

China's state-run press has also reacted badly to reports that the United States was considering dispatching the aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea.

"Having a U.S. aircraft carrier participating in joint military drills off of China's coast would certainly be a provocative action toward China," warned the Global Times, an English-language newspaper run by the Communist Party's mouthpiece, the People's Daily.

Shirk and others said they back sending the aircraft battle group.

"Our commitment to the region is always in question because we're the outside power," Shirk said. Add to that the appearance that China's economy has recovered quickly while unemployment is still high in the United States. "It just reinforces doubts about our ability to deliver," she said.

"But it's dangerous," she acknowledged. "I would send it but not say anything about it. I wouldn't make some big muscular statement. I would just say, 'This is normal.' "

Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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