News / Asia

US, South Korean Naval Exercises Postponed

The United States says planned naval exercises with South Korea have been delayed at least until after next week's bi-lateral ministerial meeting in Seoul.

Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman says there will be no announcement about specific plans for two expected naval exercises until after the American secretaries of state and defense attend the annual meeting with their South Korean counterparts next Wednesday. "The exercises will be discussed at the upcoming 'two-plus-two,' which we've already announced yesterday; so I wouldn't expect for us to have anything on that this week," he said.

Whitman announced the exercises seven weeks ago, and said they would likely take place in late June or early July.  One exercise is aimed at improving the U.S. and South Korean joint ability to detect and repel submarines.  The other is to be focused on dealing with threats from surface ships.

Whitman said the exercises were planned in response to an international investigation, which concluded that North Korea had sunk a South Korean navy ship in March, killing 46 sailors.  North Korea denies the charge.

Since the exercises were announced, a series of developments has delayed the plan.  South Korea asked the United Nations Security Council to condemn North Korea for the attack.  U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that Washington and Seoul wanted to see what happened at the U.N. before proceeding.  The Council adopted a presidential statement late last week, rather than a formal resolution, and it condemned the sinking but did not blame North Korea directly.  Pyongyang called the move a diplomatic victory, and asked to resume talks at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.  The North then postponed the talks, which had been scheduled for Tuesday, citing administrative problems.

At the same time, China has expressed concern about the planned exercises, particularly if they are held in the Yellow Sea, between the Korean Peninsula and the Chinese mainland, as had been expected.  China has been conducting a naval exercise in the Yellow Sea in recent days.  A spokesman in Beijing said Tuesday that U.S.-South Korean exercises in the area would threaten key Chinese interests including its sovereignty, security, territorial integrity and economic development.  

In addition, the official Xinhua News Agency said Tuesday the military plan "is gradually drawing widespread public ire in China," and called for "restraint" and "calm," rather than what it called "drastic moves."

The Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman, could not say Tuesday where the exercises might be held, or why the plan now needs to be discussed at the ministerial level.  But he said there is no intent to cause Chinese concern. "The exercises that we have been doing for any number of years with the Republic of Korea are designed to add to the stability and security of that region, and particularly the peninsula," he said.

The exercises were announced after U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said during a visit to Beijing that President Barack Obama had ordered military commanders to increase their already close cooperation with South Korea.  She said the goals were, in her words, "to ensure readiness and to deter future aggression."  And the secretary of state said the United States and South Korea would "explore further enhancements" to their joint posture on the peninsula."

The United States has nearly 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea and would command a joint force in case of any attack on the country.  The date to shift wartime command to South Korea was pushed back three-and-a-half years, to December of 2015, after the recent ship sinking.

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