US, ROK to hold naval war games

Padang Ekspres.net-The United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) on Wednesday announced joint naval war games in the Yellow Sea, a day after the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) shelled an island near the disputed border with the ROK - one of their worst clashes in decades.

Though the Chinese government has yet to respond to the decision, Chinese experts warned the war games may escalate tension on the Korean Peninsula.

The death toll from the skirmish on Tuesday rose to four on Wednesday after ROK coast guards, searching the ruins of shattered homes on Yeonpyeong island, found the bodies of two elderly men. Two ROK marines were confirmed dead on Tuesday after the artillery barrage on the island and 18 people were injured.

The DPRK accused the ROK, which was conducting military drills off its west coast on Tuesday, of firing first. But Seoul said its firing exercises were not aimed at the DPRK.

China urged the two countries to engage in talks in order to avoid similar incidents, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said in a statement.

"China pays close attention to the incident. We regret the casualties and property losses, and are concerned about the situation," Hong said.

"We strongly urge both sides to remain calm and show restraint," Hong said.

In their first joint response to the attack, US President Barack Obama and his ROK counterpart Lee Myung-bak agreed to hold the war games.

The four-day joint exercise will start on Sunday in the Yellow Sea, and involve a naval strike group spearheaded by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington, US Forces Korea said.

The carrier, with 75 warplanes and a crew of more than 6,000, left a naval base south of Tokyo on Wednesday.

A White House statement said Obama telephoned Lee to declare that the US "stands shoulder to shoulder" with the ROK, which is home to 28,500 US troops.

It said the drill was planned well before Tuesday's events but it demonstrated the US "commitment to regional stability through deterrence".


China has expressed worry about US-ROK joint exercises in nearby waters, especially the presence of a US aircraft carrier.

But what is of greater concern to Beijing is that the war games could antagonize Pyongyang, said Liu Jiangyong, an expert on East Asia studies with Tsinghua University.

"The repeated military drills have contributed to the tensions. Military exercises result in Pyongyang worrying about being harmed accidentally or intentionally," he said.

To break the deadlock of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, US special representative for DPRK policy Stephen Bosworth arrived in China on Tuesday.

He had told reporters in Tokyo before departing for China that Washington does not "contemplate resuming negotiations while active programs are under way" or while there is a possibility that the DPRK may conduct another nuclear or missile test, referring to the stalled Six-Party Talks that Beijing wants to resume.

Bosworth, however, changed his tone after meeting with Chinese officials on Tuesday, including Beijing's special envoy for peninsula affairs Wu Dawei.

"Both sides ... said they were willing to make efforts for the early resumption of the Six-Party Talks," said a Foreign Ministry statement.

Li Qingsi, an expert on international relations with Renmin University of China, said the clash could spur the momentum for talks, considering the urgency of the situation.

Jin Canrong, another expert at Renmin University, said that while tensions on the peninsula are likely to last for a period, they will not escalate into regional conflict as "there is no will on either side for that".

Most of Obama's attention is taken up on domestic affairs at the moment and Korean affairs do not seem to be a high priority for the White House, Jin said.

Bonnie Glaser, China studies expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said "China's interest in preserving peace and stability on the peninsula should lead Beijing to convey its deep concerns" to Pyongyang.

Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, said that the DPRK's shelling of the island is, in part, to assert sovereignty over the disputed waters off the west coast of the divided peninsula.

Seoul said after the Tuesday clash it was suspending promised food aid to Pyongyang. It also said it would deploy more artillery on Yeonpyeong. At least 700 people have fled the island, home to more than 1,500 civilians and a permanent military base.

Pyongyang said Seoul was driving the peninsula to the "brink of war" with "reckless military provocation" and by postponing humanitarian aid, its Korean Central News Agency said.

Agencies and Zhou Wa contributed to this story.

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