Tensions surround US-S. Korea war drills

The United States and South
Korea on Sunday kicked off their largest joint war game in years, with a
nuclear-powered American aircraft carrier prowling off the east coast of South
Korea while North Korea threatened to retaliate with its nuclear weapons and
reportedly put its military on an alert for war.

Rising tensions demonstrated
how tenuous peace remained on the divided peninsula after the Korean War was
temporarily halted in a ceasefire between the US-led United Nations forces and
the communist troops from North Korea and China 57 years ago on Tuesday.

The current spate of tension
was sparked when a South Korean warship was blown up in March, killing 46
sailors. A team of investigators from South Korea, the United States and other
countries that joined the UN forces during the war determined in May that North
Korea torpedoed the ship.

Sweden, which did not join
combats of the war, participated in the part of the investigation that
concluded that the torpedo was “manufactured by North Korea,” but not in the
intelligence analysis that determined that the torpedo was fired by a North
Koran submarine.

North Korea has called the
investigation a “fake.” China, a North Korean ally in the war, also rejected
it. Meanwhile, the United States and South Korea announced new sanctions
against North Korea last week when their foreign and defence ministers
travelled together to the inter-Korean border in a symbolic gesture of
confronting the North.

On Sunday, in a show of
their combined military power, a fleet of US and South Korean naval ships and
submarines sailed into waters off the east coast of South Korea, led by the
nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington, one of the biggest
ships in the US Navy. Japan, a historical rival of the two Koreas but an ally
of South Korea and the United States in their confrontation with North Korea,
dispatched military observers in the four-day exercise.

The drills mobilized 20
ships, 8,000 troops from both allies and an unusually large number of
warplanes: more than 200 aircraft, including the F-22 Raptor fighter, which
joins an exercise in South Korea for the first time.

The exercises this week are
the first in a series of US-South Korean manoeuvers to be conducted in the
coming months. US officials warned last week that political pressure arising
from the succession of power from the ailing North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il,
to his youngest son, Kim Jong-il, might prompt the regime to attempt further
military provocations.

On Saturday, North Korea
vowed to launch a “sacred war” against the United States and South Korea at
“any time necessary,” and counter their “largest-ever nuclear war exercises”
with its own “powerful nuclear deterrence.”

Radio Free Asia reported
that the North has put its military and hunger-stricken people on high alert.
North Korea uses tensions with the Americans to boost solidarity at home and
justify its development of nuclear weapons.

It will likely test
short-range missiles and fire artillery in waters near the disputed western sea
border and might even attempt a test of its long-range missile and a nuclear
device, said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea analyst at Dongguk University in
Seoul. North Korea is also enriching uranium to boost its nuclear capabilities.

“North Korea will try to
fend off the mounting joint pressure from the United States and South Korea by
retching up tensions in stages,” Mr. Kim said. “For now, both Washington and
Seoul seem to believe that they got nothing big to lose by continuing the
pressure. What worries me is that the tension is not just between the two
Koreas but also between the biggies, the United States and China.”

China turned unusually vocal
in confronting the United States and criticizing its joint military manoeuvers
with South Korea, prompting the allies to relocate their drills from the
sensitive Yellow Sea.