U.S. to stage exercises with South Korea; few good options for dealing with North

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 10:24 AM

The United States is dispatching an aircraft carrier strike group to the waters off the Korean Peninsula for joint military exercises that President Obama said would reinforce the U.S. alliance with South Korea in the wake of a North Korean artillery attack Tuesday.

The U.S. military headquarters in Seoul announced Wednesday that the USS George Washington carrier group would join South Korean naval forces west of the peninsula from Nov. 28 to Dec. 1 to conduct exercises that have been planned since July.

"This exercise is defensive in nature," the military said in a statement. "While planned well before yesterday's unprovoked artillery attack, it demonstrates the strength of the [South Korea]-U.S. Alliance and our commitment to regional stability through deterrence. It is also designed to improve our military interoperability."

The announcement came after Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak agreed in a phone call Tuesday night to hold joint military and training exercises in the coming days "to underscore the strength of our Alliance and commitment to peace and security in the region," the White House said in a statement.

North Korea's artillery barrage against a South Korean island, coupled with its choreographed rollout of a new nuclear program, has presented the United States with a massive strategic challenge in one of the most dangerous corners of the world.

In addition to the Japan-based George Washington and its embarked carrier wing, the participating strike group includes the guided missile cruisers USS Cowpens and USS Shiloh and the destroyers USS Stethem and USS Fitzgerald, the military said.

It said U.S. and South Korean forces would conduct air defense and surface warfare readiness training. It added that the U.S. Navy "routinely operates in the waters off the Korean Peninsula and has conducted numerous operations and exercises in this area." For example, the statement said, the George Washington strike group undertook similar operations in international waters west of the peninsula in October 2009.

In his phone call with Lee, Obama pledged to lead international efforts to condemn North Korea's apparently unprovoked 50-minute barrage on the island of Yeonpyeong, which killed two South Korean marines and two civilians, wounded at least 19 other people and set buildings and forests ablaze. But analysts said the United States faces few good options with regard to the North.

If it declines to hold talks with North Korea unless the government there agrees to give up its nuclear weapons - part of the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience" - Pyongyang could escalate with more artillery barrages or with an attack on a South Korean warship, similar to the one it is accused of launching in March. The government could also conduct a third nuclear test, long rumored to be in the offing, or continue to hawk its nuclear-weapons technology abroad.

On the other hand, if the Obama administration is pulled into talks with the North Koreans, it won't be able to escape the appearance that it is caving in the face of pressure. And even if talks do resume, there is no guarantee that North Korea won't continue the provocations and attacks.

"We've had an underlying philosophy of not rewarding bad behavior with concessions," said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "And that philosophy will continue to underline our next steps."

Tuesday's artillery blasts marked the first time in years that North Korea has trained the firepower of its 1.1 million-strong military on South Korea's civilian population. It prompted a withering round of return fire from South Korean batteries, the scrambling of the South's air force and concerns that the firefight could spiral into all-out war.

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