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With US-South Korea war games, a signal to North Korea

US naval exercises Sunday off the Korean peninsula take on added significance, after North Korean attack on a South Korean island. Pyongyang rails against the US-South Korea war games.

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Related: North Korea's 'military first' politics are behind recent attacks

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The attack on Yeonpyeong has certainly become an international incident. Just after US Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of the 28,000 US troops stationed in South Korea, toured the island Friday morning to inspect the result of the barrage that left homes in flames and four South Koreans dead, North Korea fired menacing artillery rounds that landed off Yeonpyeong's coast.

The artillery exchange Tuesday has produced domestic political fallout in South Korea, prompting the defense minister to resign. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Friday named one of the country’s chairman of the joint chiefs to replace him.

The joint exercises set for Sunday have provoked a predictably confrontational response from North Korea. Its state news agency promised that North Korea’s Army is “getting ready to give a shower of dreadful fire and blow up the bulwark of the enemies.”

The agency further warned, according to The New York Times, that the “situation on the Korean Peninsula is inching closer to the brink of war due to the reckless plan of those trigger-happy elements to stage war exercises” – exercises, the agency emphasized, that are targeted against the North.

It is an assessment that the US military continues to dispute. The announcement by the Seventh Naval Fleet emphasized that the “US Navy routinely operates in waters off the Korean peninsula and has conducted numerous operations and exercises in this area.”

But the Pentagon is not opposed to conducting these routine exercises to send a message in the wake of less-than-routine events. Two dozen US Apache gunships fired Hellfire missiles in exercises off South Korea in early June, for example, after North Korea sank the South Korean warship Cheonan in March, killing 46 South Korean sailors.

“We always point out that these are not offensive in nature,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan told reporters Wednesday on the heels of the announcement of the maneuvers after President Obama held a phone conversation with South Korean President Lee late Tuesday evening.

The exercises, Lapan said, “should not be seen as directed in an offensive nature against anyone.”

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