Responding to Cheonan warship sinking, US and South Korea confirm war games

To show North Korea their strength after it sank the Cheonan warship, the US and South Korea today announced a joint antisubmarine drill. China has objected, citing security concerns.

Lee Jae-Won/File/Reuters
South Korea Navy soldiers stand guard near the wreckage of the naval vessel Cheonan, which was sunk on March 26 near the maritime border with North Korea, at the Second Fleet Command's naval base in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul in this May 19 file photo. South Korea and the US confirmed Friday they will hold joint war games.

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South Korea and the United States will ignore a strong warning from China and go ahead with a joint antisubmarine drill in the Yellow Sea, South Korea's Defense Ministry said Friday.

The exercise is aimed at showing muscle to North Korea after it allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship on March 26. China does not acknowledge the North’s responsibility in the attack on the Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors.

Beijing made an official objection to the war games Thursday, saying they would “undermine China's security interests in the Yellow Sea” and worsen the situation with North Korea. But on Friday South Korea said the exercises, originally planned for June, would proceed, reports Agence France-Presse.

"The date and methods have not yet been decided but the South Korea-US joint military exercise will be carried out," said defence ministry spokesman Won Tae-Jae.

"The joint exercise in the Yellow Sea is being planned as North Korea carried out an illegal provocation, the sinking of the Cheonan." [...]

The drill was originally set for last month but was delayed until the United Nations Security Council wrapped up discussions on the sinking.

The UN was set Friday to condemn the attacks on the Cheonan. But the Security Council statement – agreed upon by China and the US – does not point the finger at North Korea. The document merely “takes note” of Pyongyang’s denial of involvement, according to Bloomberg.

An editorial in Beijing’s Global Times, the sister paper to the communist People’s Daily, blames tension in the region on the South Korean government for “binding itself to the US” and “abandoning” reconciliatory efforts toward the North.

Public sentiments in China and South Korea vis-à-vis each other have fallen to a new low in recent years. Some Chinese people have been comparing the US-South Korea drill to the visit to Yasukuni Shrine by Japan's former prime minister Koizumi Junichiro.

It is a shame and a provocation on China's doorstep.

If a US aircraft carrier enters the Yellow Sea, it will mean a major setback to Seoul's diplomacy, as hostility between the peoples of China and South Korea will probably escalate, which Beijing and Seoul have been working for years to avoid.

TIME magazine reports that China may be feeling especially wary of the US military after the arrival of three Tomahawk missile-carrying American subs in its neighborhood on the same day. “US officials deny that any message is being directed at Beijing,” according to TIME, “saying the Tomahawk triple play was a coincidence.”

Washington so far appears to be keeping quiet on Beijing’s opposition to the Yellow Sea drills. US Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman told The Christian Science Monitor in May, when the exercises were announced, that the focus would be on antisubmarine warfare and the interdiction of banned weapons shipments.

“We think that this is an area where, working with the Republic of Korea, we can hone some skills and increase capabilities,” the Monitor quoted Whitman as saying.

Officials in South Korea, meanwhile, are unhappy with China’s complaint, reports the daily Chosun Ilbo.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun said, "The West Sea drill is a matter under discussion between two allies, Korea and the U.S., as a response to the North's attack on the Cheonan. We'll make judgment on our own and decide to take action based on such judgment." He said the government is "certain that the Chinese government also understands the nature of the joint exercise."

Privately, however, some government officials feel China is overstepping its bounds with its support for North Korea at the UN Security Council and protests against the drill.

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