US Warships Steam Toward Yellow Sea

The American carrier strike group on forward deployment in Japan heads for the Korean Peninsula.

The American aircraft carrier George Washington headed for the Korean Peninsula Wednesday to participate in military exercises with the armed forces of South Korea. The show of force comes a mere day after North Korea shelled a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea.

The naval exercise was scheduled before Tuesday’s incident but is “meant to send a very strong signal of deterrence” nonetheless, according to the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen. “We’re very focused on restraint,” he told CNN, “not letting this thing get out of control. The South Koreans so far have responded that way. Nobody wants this thing to turn into a conflict.”

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was unusually bellicose in his language on the day that the most severe exchange of fire between the both Koreas occurred since they agreed to a ceasefire in 1953. He nevertheless urged his counterparts in the North to restraint and promised to “carefully manage the situation from further escalating.” The United States pledged to support their ally but also called on both sides to prevent the situation from worsening.

Pyongyang by contrast has blamed the South for initiating the exchange, threatening “merciless” strikes if the violence continues. Today the regime blamed South Korea for bringing the peninsula “to the brink of war” by continuing with a naval exercise in conjunction with the United States. “The puppet group dared make an uproar over ‘a provocation’ from someone and cry out for ‘punishment’ like a thief crying ‘Stop the thief!'” its KCNA news agency complained.

The USS George Washington is based in Yokosuka, Japan, leading the only American carrier strike group on forward deployment. This summer, after a South Korean corvette was torpedoed and sunk by a North Korean submarine, the carrier participated in a series of US-South Korean military exercises in the area which were designed, in the words of the American and South Korean defense secretaries at the time, “to send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behavior must stop, and that we are committed to together enhancing our combined defensive capabilities.”

Some 28,500 American troops are deployed in South Korea. According to the Defense Department, more than fifty US Navy vessels are currently in the area. The latest round of exercises at sea are scheduled to commence this Sunday and will include, besides the George Washington, the guided-missile cruisers USS Cowpens and USS Shiloh as well as the destroyers USS Fitzgerald and USS Stethem.