South Korea keeps wary eye on North Korea during war games
North Korea has refrained so far from retaliating against the ongoing US-South Korea war games. Analysts say the North may try a long-range missile test toward the United States or Japan.
American and South Korean ships and planes fired on imaginary North Korean submarines Monday as four days of joint exercises reached the half-way mark with no sign of North Korea doing anything to spoil the war games – yet.Skip to next paragraph
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US and South Korean officials are not quite prepared to say they have called the North Koreans’ bluff by ignoring its threats of a strong – even nuclear – response to the exercises. But most analysts are convinced that the North had no intention of challenging the might of the air and naval forces amassed off South Korea’s east coast.
Kim Tae-woo, long-time analyst of North Korean intentions at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, doesn't think North Korea is ready to explode a nuclear device for the third time. “A long-range missile test is more possible,” he says. “That’s easier. We should be prepared.”
As some 20 ships and 200 aircraft zigzagged through the seas and skies about 70 miles off South Korea’s coast, the North Korean media kept up a steady drumbeat of denunciations reminiscent of the North’s diatribes during previous US-South Korea military exercises.
The difference this time was that the stakes have risen sharply since the sinking of South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan in March in which 46 sailors died. A South Korean investigation, which included the views of experts from the US, Britain, Australia, and Sweden, blamed a North Korean midget submarine for firing the torpedo that split the Cheonan in two and sunk it in minutes.
North Korea denies any role in the attack.
Divide and conquer strategy?
North Korea’s strategy of denial appears to many analysts to have sharpened the divisions among the nations that have participated in recent years in so-called six-party talks on the North’s nuclear program. North Korea has said it now wants to return to the talks, last held in Beijing in December 2008, but “we have a crack among the parties,” says Professor Kim Sung-han. China and Russia support the North, he says, while the US and Japan support the South.
On a more practical level, “Operation Invincible Spirit,” as the current war games are called, has provided an opportunity for American and South Korean forces to perfect coordination on some of their most sophisticated weaponry in the biggest joint exercises conducted by the two allies in more than 30 years.
The US commander in Korea, Gen. Walter “Skip” Sharp, said the exercises “send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behavior must stop” and that the US and South Korea “are committed to enhancing our combined defensive capabilities."
As warplanes roared from the deck of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS George Washington, at 98,000 tons one of the biggest in the US navy, US and South Korean destroyers and at least one South Korean submarine cruised surrounding waters. For the first time, US Air Force F-22 raptors also joined the games, taking off with scores of other aircraft from the major US base at Osan.