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US-South Korean Exercises May Be Postponed, But Planning Continues

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says planned military exercises with South Korea may be postponed until after the United Nations decides how to respond to the current crisis, but a Pentagon spokesman says planning for two naval exercises continues.

Secretary Gates told reporters in Singapore, where he is attending a regional security conference, that South Korea's request for U.N. action may cause a delay in the planned exercises.

"There is a sequencing involved in this," he said. "And it may be that there is a desire first to see what can be accomplished at the UN, and then think about next steps beyond that."

An international investigation concluded that North Korea sank a South Korean Navy ship in March, killing 46 sailors. North Korea disputes the finding.

As part of their response, the United States and South Korea announced they would conduct two joint naval exercises late this month or early next month. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman says preparations for those exercises are still in progress.

"The planning for those exercises continues," he said. "The exercises that we talked about doing, the (anti-)submarine exercise and the maritime partnership exercises are sometime down the road at this point anyway."

Some South Korean and U.S. officials said earlier this week that the exercises could begin as early as next Monday, but if that plan existed it has now been abandoned. U.S. officials have also strongly denied reports that there are plans for an aircraft carrier to be involved in the exercises.

Some experts and officials have expressed concern about provoking further attacks by nuclear-armed North Korea. At the Singapore conference Friday, the commander of U.S. military forces in the Pacific, Admiral Robert Willard, said recent harsh North Korean rhetoric about the planned exercises is normal, and his forces are ready for any contingency.

"Right now, we're not seeing indications that North Korea is intending a next provocation. But I think everyone in the region is watching North Korea very closely, given their unpredictability," said Willard.

South Korea's president said Friday if the international community tolerates what he called North Korea's military provocation, it will make the Korean Peninsula less stable. He called for strong international action to punish the North for sinking the ship and to convince its leaders to abandon their nuclear weapons program - something the international community has tried and failed to do over the past several years.