The joint military exercises the US will conduct with South Korea's navy on Sunday, off the Korean peninsula in the Yellow Sea, are taking on added significance as a message-bearer to North Korea, following Pyongyang's shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong on Tuesday.
The Pentagon is quick to point out that the naval exercises are “defensive in nature” and that similar events have been held frequently. But US commanders also acknowledge that this joint exercise is a pointed reminder to the North of US military strength and America's allegiance with South Korea. The US announced the exercises after the artillery barrage of Yeonpyeong, home to South Korean military bases and a small civilian population.
“While planned well before [Tuesday’s] unprovoked artillery attack, [the joint exercise] demonstrates the strength” of the US-South Korean alliance, according to a statement released Wednesday by the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet.
The exercise, in the wake of what is widely considered the region's most dramatic flare-up since the Korean War ended in a cease-fire, “is meant to send a very strong signal of deterrence,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen told CNN this week.
That said, he added, “We’re very focused on restraint – not letting this thing get out of control. The South Koreans have so far responded that way. Nobody wants this thing to turn into a conflict.”
An aircraft carrrier, the USS George Washington, and four other US Navy ships are currently making their way toward the Yellow Sea to take part in the training exercises. They will include air defense and also surface warfare readiness training, according to the US military, which “maintains a robust forward presence in the Asia-Pacific region,” the Seventh Fleet release further noted. These exercises will last until Dec. 1 and may involve air defense and submarine drills, as well as test-firing the ships' weapons, including dummy torpedos, according to US Navy officials.
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.”