US holds drills off Korea as Pyongyang talks war
Seoul: US and South Korean warships and helicopters practiced anti-submarine manoeuvres off the Korean peninsula on Monday, readying defences against the kind of weapon that allegedly sank a South Korean Navy vessel earlier this year.
The destruction of the Cheonan in March, which has been blamed on a North Korean torpedo, killed 46 sailors in what officials called the worst military attack on the South since the 1950-53 Korean War.
The four-day "Invincible Spirit" exercises involving 20 ships, 200 aircraft and about 8,000 US and South Korean sailors are being held in the waters off Korea's east coast in response to the sinking, bringing threats of retaliation from North Korea, which denies responsibility for the attack.
The anti-submarine phase of the training — which also involves anti-ship and anti-aircraft operations — is particularly important because an international investigation found that the 1,200-ton corvette Cheonan was sunk by a torpedo launched from a North Korean submarine that somehow penetrated South Korea's defences.
"I am concerned about every submarine underwater that I don't know about," said Capt David Lausman, the commanding officer of the USS George Washington, a nuclear-powered supercarrier deployed to the manoeuvres from its home port in Japan.
Lausman said the attack demonstrated the opaque nature of Pyongyang's military, which he said should not be underestimated.
"North Korea's danger lies because they are unpredictable," he said. "The sinking of the Cheonan is a prime example."
North Korea has strongly protested the exercises, saying they are a provocation and threatening retaliation. In flourishes of rhetoric typical of the regime, it vowed to respond with a "sacred war" and a "powerful nuclear deterrence”.
"They will face a costly consequence if they stick to the criminal activities ravaging peace and security on the Korean peninsula," North Korea's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in commentary carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
US officials say that the manoeuvres, held well away from North Korea's border, are not intended to provoke a response, but add that they do want to send Pyongyang a message that further aggression in the region will not be tolerated and that the alliance between the US and South Korea remains strong.
On Monday, Gen Han Min-goo, chief of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, was to tour the George Washington.
The exercises are the first in a series of US-South Korean manoeuvres conducted in the East Sea off Korea and in the Yellow Sea closer to China's shores in international waters.
They are the first to employ the F-22 stealth fighter — which can evade North Korean air defences — in South Korea.
The North routinely threatens attacks whenever South Korea and the US hold joint military drills, which Pyongyang sees as a rehearsal for an invasion. The US keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea and another 50,000 in Japan, but says it has no intention of invading the North.