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USS George Washington, S. Korea military drills send mixed signals to North Korea

The United States is getting tough on North Korea by conducting military drills using the USS George Washington with South Korea next week.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / July 20, 2010

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks to troops during a stop at Camp Casey, on Tuesday, July 20, in Seoul, South Korea. Mr. Gates will join Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan and Gates's counterpart, Kim Tae-young, on Wednesday.

Mark Wilson/AP

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The United States is sending mixed signals to North Korea, China – and also South Korea – in a display of high-level solidarity with the South that includes one of the biggest displays of military might in the region in recent years.

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The two US cabinet members with the greatest influence on US policies overseas, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, are seeing their counterparts in Seoul on Wednesday to fortify an alliance that at times has appeared weak and vacillating.

Officials have dubbed the meetings the “two plus two” talks, the first time the Defense secretary and secretary of State have descended upon Seoul simultaneously, and they’ve already begun pouring out statements and messages on the enduring strength of the alliance. The most dramatic signal will be military exercises, led by the aircraft carrier George Washington, that Mr. Gates and Korea’s defense minister, Kim Tae-young, say are “designed to send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behavior must stop.”

Response to sinking of South Korean Navy ship

The whole show amounts to a minutely orchestrated response to North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette the Cheonan in March in which 46 sailors were killed. The exercises, featuring 20 US and South Korean ships and 200 warplanes, are slated to go on for four days – but in waters nowhere near where the Cheonan went down in the Yellow Sea.

Instead, in a bow to strenuous objections from China, they’ll take place in what Koreans call the East Sea, a name on which they strongly insist on instead of "The Sea of Japan" as it's called elsewhere.

The need to use a “neutral” term for those waters became clear last week after a Pentagon official, announcing plans for the exercises, raised eyebrows in Seoul by saying they would be held in “the Sea of Japan.” US officials subsequently said that all statements will refer to waters “off the east coast” – a turn of phrase that is critical if the Americans are to avoid a chorus of criticism from South Korean officials, political figures, and the media.

Raised eyebrows

On a much larger scale, the exercises are finally going to happen after weeks of uncertainty in which South Korea’s Defense Ministry pressed the Americans to stage them in the Yellow Sea as a show of force against North Korea.

“There is a difference between the South Korean and US position,” says Paik Hak-soon, senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, an influential Korean think tank. “The US will try to persuade South Korea to being more realistic, and the South Korean government will try to persuade the US to be more cooperative.”

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