US-led war games in South Korean waters draw threats from North

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One of the largest ships in the US Navy is leading military exercises off the Korean peninsula in a show of strength aimed at the Communist North, but which the regime there warned could spark "sacred war" with its neighbour.

The 1,100-ft nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, with 19 other ships, 200 planes and 8,000 US and South Korean personnel, launched the war games yesterday amid threats from North Korea that it would block the manoeuvres and could even use its nuclear deterrent.

In an attempt to prevent tensions from escalating further, South Korea's Defence Ministry said it has relocated the exercises to the Sea of Japan, instead of the Yellow Sea nearer China – which had objected.

The Chinese government warned all sides to show restraint.

The massive show of force by the US and South Korean allies came in response to the sinking in March of a South Korean warship, which an international investigation concluded had been torpedoed by North Korea; 46 sailors died in the attack on the Cheonan, for which North Korea has denied responsibility.

Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a symbolic trip to the demilitarised zone that divides North Korea from South Korea, ostensibly to mark the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. She used the trip, however, to announce new sanctions against North Korea in retaliation for the sinking. The naval exercises – which are due to run until Wednesday – are the latest attempt to put pressure on the North, and will be followed by smaller manoeuvres over coming months.

The F-22 Raptor fighter plane was yesterday being used for the first time on such an exercise, deploying stealth technology that the US believes would be able to evade North Korea's air defences. US commanders, who have named the exercise "Invincible Spirit", said they are taking North Korea's threats against the exercises seriously but have received no intelligence reports of unusual activity by the North Korean military. They said the war games are designed not to provoke, but to dissuade the North from provocations of its own. "We are showing our resolve," said Capt David Lausman, commanding officer of the USS George Washington.

North Korean state media spent the days before the manoeuvres issuing belligerent statements in condemnation. "The army and people of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea will start a retaliatory sacred war of their own style, based on nuclear deterrent, any time necessary in order to counter the US imperialists and the South Korean puppet forces deliberately pushing the situation to the brink of a war," the central news agency said.

And the government-run Minju Joson newspaper bluntly declared in an editorial: "We also have nuclear weapons." The US-led show of strength was not uniformly welcomed in South Korea, where about 150 anti-war activists demonstrated yesterday near the US embassy in Seoul, chanting slogans such as "We are opposing the drills" and "Scrap the South Korean-US alliance". The activists said the training would only deepen tensions in the region.

The US believes a power struggle is developing in the North under ailing leader Kim Jong-il, which it says has led to increased belligerence and volatility. It has vowed to step up sanctions in order to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table.

Though impoverished North Korea has a large conventional military, and the capability to build nuclear weapons, it is not yet believed to have the technology needed to use nuclear devices as warheads.

The sanctions announced by Mrs Clinton come on top of UN sanctions imposed in an effort to deflect the North from developing its nuclear arsenal. They are aimed at curbing the ability of the North's leadership to generate cash through elaborate counterfeiting, smuggling and money laundering.

On Friday, the European Union said it, too, would consider new sanctions on North Korea. Other powers in the region have watched the escalating tension and searing rhetoric with alarm.

The Japanese, aligned with the US, have sent observers to join the naval exercises. China, a traditional ally of Pyongyang, protested moves to conduct the exercise in the Yellow Sea.

The Chinese government has yet to accept the findings of the international inquiry, headed by Seoul, that the sinking the ship in March was the work of the North Korean navy.