US joins South Korean war games

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The Independent Online

The US aircraft carrier George Washington steamed into the Yellow Sea last night at the centre of a powerful naval strike force daring North Korea to make good on threats to turn the waters into "a sea of fire".

The entry of the 55,000-ton George Washington, with a full complement of fighter planes on its decks, is the climax to a crisis triggered last Tuesday by North Korea's attack on a remote South Korean island in the Yellow Sea in response to exercises in the area by South Korean forces.

While the US strike force plays war games with South Korean vessels, North Korea is warning of "unpredictable consequences" that no one is dismissing as just rhetoric after Tuesday's shelling of a village on a remote Yellow Sea island.

North Korea mingled its fulminations over this week's military exercises with a surprising apology for the deaths of two civilians in an attack in which two South Korean marines were also killed.

Responding to the widespread view that North Korean gunners had deliberately targeted civilians, Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency said the deaths were "very regrettable" but the fault of the marines for using them as "human shields." The broadcast said North Korea had made "superhuman efforts to prevent the clash" accused the South of campaigning to give "the impression that defenseless civilians were exposed to 'indiscriminate shelling.'"

South Korean's defense establishment, led by a newly appointed defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, with a reputation for toughness dating from his years as a top general, brushed off those claims as what one official called "fabrications." Another said they were "not worthy of a response."

With the war games set to begin on Sunday, South Korean military leaders came out with some rhetoric of their own that seemed about as florid as that of the North Korean propaganda machine. Defense Minister Kim, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the Korean armed forces, said South Korean forces needed "to hit back multiple times as hard" in retaliation for North Korean attack.

The commander of the South Korean marine corps, General Yoo Nak-joon, was just as outspoken at an emotion-laden funeral for the two young marines who died in the attack. His troops, he promised, would "repay North Korea a hundred and a thousand old" for the attack. All Koreans, he said, would "engrave this outrage deep into our bones".

For all the fine words, however, South Koreans appeared as uncertain, and perhaps as unprepared, as when the North Koreans on Tuesday afternoon fired 170 rounds into Yeonpyong island from artillery positions hidden just beyond the North Korean coastline eight miles away.

President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative politician with a long background in big business but no military experience, gave an impression of indecisiveness and uncertainty about how strongly to respond in case of another attack.

Even after presiding over daily "emergency" cabinet meetings, some of them staged in a bunker beneath the presidential office building known as the Blue House, Lee failed to put on a convincing display of real determination to fend off North Korean attack. A spokesman quoted Lee on Saturday as warning of "a possibility that North Korea might commit wayward acts" during the exercises in the Yellow Sea – a comment that fortified the view that Lee was worried about escalation of the crisis rather than retaliation that some observers think will be inevitable.

"My view was, as soon as we were attacked, we should have taken those bases out with our F16 fighters," said Lee Jong-min, a dean at Yonsei University who also serves as a part-time ambassador for national security. "We are hostage to whatever the North Koreans do."

At the least, said Shim Jae-hoon, a long-time analyst of North Korean affairs, "President Lee should have gone on national television right away" to bring home th gravity of the crisis to South Koreans.

The government in recent days has decided to bolster defenses on Yeonbyong islands and four other islands just south of the Northern Limit Line beneath which North Korean vessels are banned. More troops were ordered to bases on the islands, and more artillery pieces and other weapons were said to be on the way.

A real problem, though, was how to bolster the enthusiasm of Koreans for risking a wider conflict. On the streets of Seoul on a typical Saturday night, crowds of young people surged in an out of bars, restaurants an nightclubs as always. The topic of the attack was rarely mentioned in casual conversations after days of reports on all three major TV networks as well as YTN, a 24-hour cable network.

"Of course people show sympathy for the victims, but that's not the same," observed Brian Myers, author of The Cleanest Race, about North Korea's social and political foibles. "North Korea thrives on tensions. These things will keep going on."

As the war games were poised to begin, there was an undercurrent of criticism that U.S. and South Koran forces were provoking, if not an attack on themselves, at least greater uncertainty about where the North would strike next. It was to deepen the split among South Koreans, many believe, that North Korea hit upon the notion of claiming that civilians were hurt or killed in Tuesday's barrage.

So uncertain was the government over what to do that no one was quite sure whether to characterize North Korea as the South's "main enemy." The late Kim Dae-jung, as the president who initiated the Sunshine policy of reconciliation with the North during his five-year from 1998 to 2003, banned the use of that term in the defense ministry's annual white paper.

President Lee, after the sinking of the South Korean navy corvette in late March, blamed that episode in part on the defense military's failure to "clarify the notion of the main enemy."

"Now", said an official, "We are reviewing a plan to say that North Korea equals the main enemy" – a designation that might seem appropriate considering North Korea's oft-stated view that "we are on the brink of war."