South Korea and U.S. send message to North Korea with drills in Sea of Japan

A nuclear-powered U.S. super carrier led an armada of warships in exercises off the Korean peninsula on Sunday, despite threats from North Korea to use its "nuclear deterrence" if they went ahead.
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2010

TOKYO -- Taking their boldest step since the March sinking of the Cheonan warship, the United States and South Korea on Sunday began a massive joint military exercise designed to show off power and solidarity in a region divided by tensions.

The military muscle-flexing came after months of delays and revisions, and despite opposition from China and threats from North Korea.

The war games are customary drills for U.S. and South Korean forces, but this operation, code-named Invincible Spirit, involved substantial firepower -- an intended deterrent against reckless behavior from Pyongyang, U.S. officials said.

"The point of [the exercise] is, I think, to ensure that our relationship with the South is very strong . . . and also send the message to the North Koreans that their behavior is completely counter to international norms, completely unacceptable," Adm. Mike Mullen, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, said last week.

North Korea had said Saturday that it would counter the military exercise with "powerful nuclear deterrence," but the first day of the four-day drills drew no further response from Kim Jong Il's government.

To put on the military fireworks display, the United States and South Korea dispatched about 20 ships, 200 aircraft, and 8,000 sailors and airmen to the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea. The drills will showcase, most notably, a small fleet of F-22 fighter planes and the USS George Washington, a 97,000-ton nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. According to a report in the South Korean media, an exercise involving antisubmarine bombs -- designed to prevent incidents similar to the Cheonan sinking -- will take place this week.

North Korea has denied any role in the March 26 torpedoing of the warship, which killed 46 South Korean sailors. Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council condemned the sinking but did not directly blame North Korea.

South Korea and the United States had discussed these drills for months but postponed them until after the Security Council finished its deliberations. Facing vehement opposition from China, U.S. and South Korean officials decided to relocate the drills from the Yellow Sea, west of South Korea, to the Sea of Japan to the east. Subsequent military exercises planned for the coming months could take place in the Yellow Sea, in international waters that China considers its doorstep.

Beijing continues to protest that possibility.

"We resolutely oppose any activities in the Yellow Sea that may threaten China's security," said a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Meanwhile, nuclear-capable North Korea, with 1.5 million troops and weapons pointed at Seoul, has said that the U.S.-South Korea exercise threatens the security of the region and has warned of a "retaliatory sacred war."

North Korea routinely responds to the drills with threats of aggression. Last year, Pyongyang demanded cancellation of the joint exercises and said the provocations could lead to war. But North Korea, facing political uncertainty as ailing Kim Jong Il prepares a power transfer to his son, now has increased reason to seek confrontation with the United States and South Korea, according to experts and political analysts.

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