A US aircraft carrier set off for Korean waters on Wednesday after Washington and Seoul agreed to hold joint military exercises in response to North Korea's deadly shelling of a South Korean military installation.
REUTERS - A U.S. aircraft carrier group set off for Korean waters on Wednesday, a day after North Korea rained artillery shells on a South Korean island, in a move likely to enrage Pyongyang and unsettle its ally, China.
South Korea said the bodies of two civilians were found on the island after Tuesday's attack, which is likely to stir up more resentment in the country against its prickly neighbour.
The nuclear-powered USS George Washington, which carries 75 warplanes and has a crew of over 6,000, left a naval base south of Tokyo and would join exercises with South Korea from Sunday to the following Wednesday, U.S. officials in Seoul said.
U.S. Forces Korea said the exercise was defensive and had been planned well before Tuesday's attack.
"An aircraft carrier is the most visible sign of power projection there is ... you could see this as a form of pre-emptive deterrence," said Lee Chung-min of Yonsei University in Seoul.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Pyongyang said in a statement it had responded in "self-defence" and accused the South of firing shells into its waters near the disputed maritime border.
"The DPRK that sets store by the peace and stability of the Korean peninusla is now exercising superhuman self-control but the artillery pieces of the army of the DPRK, the defender of justice, remain ready to fire," said the North's KCNA news agency, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
It said the South was driving the pensinula to the "brink of war" with "reckless military provocation" and by postponing humanitarian aid.
The government in Seoul came under pressure for the military's slow response to the provocation, echoing similar complaints made when a warship was sunk in March in the same area, killing 46 sailors.
Defence Minister Kim Tae-young was grilled by lawmakers who said the government should have taken quicker and stronger retaliatory measures against the North's provocation.
"I am sorry that the government has not carried out ruthless bombing through jet fighters during the North's second round of shelling," said Kim Jang-soo, a lawmaker of ruling Grand National Party and a former defence minister.
Tuesday's attack was the heaviest in the region since the Korean War ended in 1953, and marked the first civilian deaths in an assault since the bombing of a South Korean airliner in 1987.
The United States and Japan urged China to do more to rein in North Korea after the reclusive nation fired scores of artillery shells on Tuesday at a South Korean island near their sea border.
China's Foreign Ministry urged the two Koreas to show "calm and restraint" and engage in talks as quickly as possible to avoid an escalation of tensions.
"China takes this incident very seriously, and expresses pain and regret at the loss of life and property, and we feel anxious about developments," said spokesman Hong Lei.
China has long propped up the Pyongyang leadership, worried that a collapse of the North could bring instability to its own borders and also wary of a unified Korea that would be dominated by the United States, the key ally of the South.
The joint U.S.-South Korea drill in the waters between the Korean peninsula and China will likely enrage Beijing, which has said previous such exercises are a threat to its security and to regional peace and stability.
"China will not welcome the U.S. aircraft carrier joining the exercises, because that kind of move can escalate tensions and not relieve them," said Xu Guangyu, a retired
major-general in the People's Liberation Army who now works for a government-run arms control organisation.
The joint exercise was reminiscent of a crisis in 1996 when then President Bill Clinton sent an aircraft carrier group through the Taiwan Strait after Beijing test-fired missiles into the channel between the mainland and Taiwan.
Tuesday's bombardment nagged at global markets, already unsettled by worries over Ireland's debt problem and looking to invest in less risky assets. But by close of business on Wednesday, South Korea's markets had recovered most of lost
ground from the previous day.
Seoul, a city of over 10 million, was bustling as normal on Wednesday, a sunny autumn day, although developments were being closely watched by office workers on TV and in newspapers.
"My house was burnt to the ground," said Cho Soon-ae, 47, who was among 170 or so evacuated from Yeonpyeong on Wednesday.
"We've lost everything. I don't even have extra underwear," she said weeping, holding on to her sixth-grade daughter, as she landed at Incheon.
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Despite the rhetoric, regional powers made clear they were looking for a diplomatic way to calm things down.
U.S. President Barack Obama, woken up in the early hours to be told of the artillery strike, said he was outraged and pressed the North to stop its provocative actions.
South Korea, its armed forces technically superior though about half the size of the North's one-million-plus army, warned of "massive retaliation" if its neighbour attacked
But it was careful to avoid any immediate threat of retaliation which might spark an escalation of fighting across the Cold War's last frontier.
A number of analysts suspect that Tuesday's attack may have been an attempt by North Korean leader Kim jong-il to raise his bargaining position ahead of disarmament talks which he has used in the past to win concessions and aid from the
outside world, in particular the United States.
Date created : 2010-11-24