U.S. and South Korea to announce joint military exercises

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010

Over China's opposition, the United States and South Korea will announce military exercises next week when the U.S. secretaries of state and defense visit Seoul, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

The statements by the State Department and the Pentagon put to rest weeks of speculation that the Obama administration was considering scaling down the planned war games because of fears that they would irritate China or inflame North Korea.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell and State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that a portion of the exercises would occur in the Yellow Sea, which divides China from the Korean Peninsula. China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, had said last week that "we firmly oppose foreign military vessels and planes conducting activities in . . . China's coastal waters."

Crowley and Morrell said, however, that other exercises would be held in the Sea of Japan, on the eastern side of the Korean Peninsula and farther from China's shores. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates are to travel to South Korea on Wednesday to meet their counterparts and President Lee Myung-bak.

"Obviously [the Chinese] are a regional power and a country . . . whose opinion we respect and consider," Morrell said. "But this is a matter of our ability to exercise in open seas, in international waters. Those determinations are made by us and us alone."

U.S. and South Korean officials have been discussing the exercises and enhancing the already close military relationship between the two allies since the March 26 sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors. A South Korean investigation, assisted by the United States, Australia, Sweden and Britain, determined that a North Korean submarine was responsible for the attack.

U.S. officials have said they wanted to wait to announce the exercises until after the U.N. Security Council issued a statement on the sinking, which it did on Friday. In that statement, the council unanimously condemned the attack but, because of opposition from China, did not directly blame Pyongyang.

North Korea reacted to the statement as if it was a diplomatic victory and said it was willing to return to the stalled six-nation nuclear disarmament talks. North Korea also said it wanted to meet with the U.S.-led United Nations Command for the first time since the warship's sinking. It has since, however, postponed that meeting.

Neither Morrell nor Crowley gave details of the planned exercises. China's state-run media has reacted strongly to reports that the aircraft carrier USS George Washington would take part in the war games. Analysts have noted that China's response to the planned exercises seems to be another example of a new tougher tone from Beijing. In October, the George Washington participated in an operation in the Yellow Sea with the South Korean navy, and China said nothing.

Victor Cha, a former Bush administration official, said one main message of the war games should be aimed at convincing the Chinese that "if they don't like the exercises, they should do more to control North Korea."

But Michael O'Hanlon, at the Brookings Institution, said military maneuvers can be easily misinterpreted. "It's hard to get the porridge not too hot or not too cold," he said. "It's a pretty difficult form of communication."

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