Cabinet secretaries Clinton, Gates visit DMZ in show of support for South Korea

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

PANMUNJOM, KOREA -- In a show of support for South Korea, four months after one of its warships sank in a mysterious attack, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited on Wednesday the infamous no-man's land that has divided the Korean Peninsula for more than a half-century.

Although high-ranking U.S. officials have often toured the Demilitarized Zone -- a 2.5-mile-wide buffer and the most heavily guarded border in the world -- it was believed to be the first time that two high-ranking Cabinet secretaries have done so simultaneously.

"It struck me that, although it may be a thin line, these two places are worlds apart," Clinton said, standing in front of a small United Nations building that straddles the border. It was her first trip to the DMZ.

Gates was making his third trip; he said his last visit was 20 years ago, when he was director of the CIA.

"It is stunning how little has changed up there and yet how much South Korea continues to grow and prosper," he said, flanking Clinton in the rain. "The North, by contrast, stagnates in isolation and deprivation."

Clinton and Gates were also scheduled to meet their Korean counterparts for wide-ranging talks later Wednesday and to participate in a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Along with a visit to Seoul by Adm. Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, the meetings and events were intended to bolster U.S.-South Korean relations at a time of heightened tensions in the region.

That volatility has worsened since March, when the Cheonan, a South Korean frigate, sank in what an international team of investigators later determined was a torpedo attack. South Korea has blamed North Korea for the incident, which killed 46 sailors; the North has denied responsibility.

The United States and South Korea announced Tuesday that they would respond to the attack by holding "large-scale" military exercises, in an attempt to deter further hostile acts by the isolationist government of North Korea.

About 8,000 U.S. and South Korean forces will participate in the war games, starting Sunday in the Sea of Japan. The first stage of the exercises will last four days and include about 200 aircraft and 18 ships, including the USS George Washington, a 97,000-ton aircraft carrier.

"We fully expect this will send a strong signal to Pyongyang and Kim Jong Il," said Adm. Robert Willard, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, referring to the mercurial North Korean leader.

Washington and Seoul have been mulling over the exercises for months. But officials in both capitals said they decided to wait for the outcome of an international probe into the cause of the Cheonan's sinking, as well as a review by the United Nations Security Council. After weeks of diplomatic maneuvering, the Security Council unanimously condemned the attack on July 9, but did not directly blame North Korea because of opposition from China, Pyongyang's primary benefactor.

U.S. officials said subsequent exercises would take place over several months and that at least some would be held in international waters in the Yellow Sea, closer to China. They did not give details. China has vehemently opposed the exercises, calling them "provocative."

In Washington, President Obama's nominee for director of national intelligence warned of "a dangerous new period" in U.S.-North Korea relations, raising the possibility of an attack on South Korea. At his confirmation hearing, retired Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr. told senators that the North may "once again attempt to advance its internal and external political goals through direct attacks" on the South.

The fighting in the Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953; technically, both countries remain at war. U.S. troops have been stationed on the peninsula since, including 28,500 today. Those troop levels are expected to remain consistent for years to come.

Seoul and Washington have agreed that, in the event of a new war, U.S. commanders will retain operational control of their joint military forces in South Korea until at least December 2015. Previously, the U.S. military was scheduled to hand over operational command in 2012.

Officials from both countries said they had been considering the delay before the Cheonan sinking, but that recent concerns about North Korea cinched the decision.

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