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US Boosts Military Strength on Korean Peninsula - 2003-03-15

The United States has boosted its military strength on the Korean peninsula and is resuming reconnaissance flights off North Korea. The movements do not signal an impending war.

A U.S. ship equipped with the latest missile-detection technology is docked on South Korea's west coast. Six radar-evading stealth fighter jets have landed at an airbase south of Seoul, and the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is at anchor off the southern South Korean port of Busan.

It is all part of the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises, nicknamed Foal Eagle, but this year the exercises come at a particularly tense time. The United States, South Korea, and much of the world are involved in a war of words with North Korea, regarding the communist North's reported nuclear-weapons program.

North Korea's official news agency has repeated a warning that a nuclear war could break out as a result of the annual war games, which Pyongyang calls a rehearsal for an invasion of the Stalinist state. Washington says it has no intention of attacking North Korea, but maintains it is keeping open all options for dealing with the crisis.

President Bush and South Korea's new president, Roh Moo-hyun, agreed in a telephone conversation this week to continue seeking a diplomatic resolution to the crisis while also reaffirming U.S.-South Korean military ties. It was the first time the two leaders had spoken since Mr. Roh took office last month.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been escalating since October, when U.S. officials said North Korea had admitted it was enriching uranium, in violation of several international agreements it had signed. Pyongyang retaliated with a series of inflammatory actions, including the recent test-firing of two short-range anti-ship missiles, and the interception a U.S. reconnaissance plane, all in the Sea of Japan off the country's east coast.

A Japanese Defense Agency spokesman, meanwhile, says Tokyo is considering strengthening its missile defenses, amid speculation that North Korea is preparing to test a medium-range ballistic missile capable of reaching Japan.

That announcement came a day after a newspaper report that Tokyo plans to acquire advanced U.S.-made Patriot anti-missile rockets to protect itself. The report in the Yomiuri Shimbun said the new missiles will be deployed in July.

At the same time, Japan's Kyodo News Agency quoted Japanese officials as saying Tokyo may add two missile-detecting destroyers to the one already deployed near North Korea. Kyodo says such a move would raise Japan's state of alert over a possible North Korean threat to one of the highest levels ever.