US carrier heads for Korean waters

Joint exercise with South on Sunday; China under pressure to deal with neighbour

line of fire: A man walks past a house wrecked by artillery shells fired by North Korea on Yeonpyeong Island on Wednesday. REUTERS

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, US officials in Seoul said.

“This exercise is defensive in nature,” US Forces Korea said in a statement. “While planned well before Tuesday’s unprovoked artillery attack, it demonstrates the strength of the ROK (South Korea)-US alliance and our commitment to regional stability through deterrence.”

North Korea said Seoul was driving the pensinula to the “brink of war” with “reckless military provocation” and by postponing humanitarian aid, the North’s official KCNA news agency said. The dispatch did not refer to the planned military drills.

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 the maritime boundary between the two sides.

Civilians killed

The Seoul government said two South Korean civilians and two soldiers were killed and houses set ablaze in the attack, the heaviest in the region since the Korean War ended in 1953.

Beijing will not be pleased by the deployment of the aircraft carrier and will not respond to such pressure, said Xu Guangyu, a retired major-general in the People’s Liberation Army who now works for a government-run arms control organisation.

“China will not welcome the US aircraft carrier joining the exercises, because that kind of move can escalate tensions and not relieve them,” he said.

Beijing has previously said an earlier plan to send the USS George Washington to US-South Korea joint exercises threatened long-term damage to Sino-US relations.
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 South Korea’s markets, after sharp falls, recovered lost ground.

Pyongyang said the firing was in reaction to military drills conducted by South Korea in the area at the time but Seoul said it had not been firing at the North.

Obama outraged

US President Barack Obama, woken up in the early hours to be told of the artillery strike, said he was outraged.

Though US said the joint exercise was scheduled before the attack by North, it was reminiscent of a 1996 crisis when then president Bill Clinton sent an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait after Beijing test-fired missiles into the channel between the mainland and Taiwan.

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