U.S. aircraft carrier heads for Korean waters

By Jack Kim and Lee Jae-won

INCHEON, South Korea (BestGrowthStock) – A U.S. aircraft carrier group set off for Korean waters on Wednesday, a day after North Korea rained artillery shells on a South Korean island, in a move likely to enrage Pyongyang and unsettle its ally, China.

South Korea said the bodies of two civilians were found on

the island after Tuesday’s attack, which is likely to stir up

more resentment in the country against its prickly neighbor.

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, U.S. officials in Seoul said.

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

North Korea said the South was driving the peninsula 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 government in Seoul came under pressure for the military’s slow response to the provocation, echoing similar complaints made when a warship was sunk in March in the same area, killing 46 sailors.

Defense Minister Kim Tae-young was grilled by lawmakers who said the government should have taken quicker and stronger retaliatory measures against the North’s provocation.

“I am sorry that the government has not carried out ruthless bombing through jet fighters during the North’s second round of shelling,” said Kim Jang-soo, a lawmaker of ruling Grand National Party and a former defense minister.

Tuesday’s attack was the heaviest in the region since the Korean War ended in 1953, and marked the first civilian deaths in an assault since the bombing of a South Korean airliner in 1987.

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.

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 organization.

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

“Our biggest objective is stability on the Korean peninsula. That interest is not served by abandoning North Korea, and so there’s no need to rethink the basics of the relationship.”

Beijing has previously said that an earlier plan to send the USS George Washington to U.S.-South Korea joint exercises threatened long-term damage to Sino-U.S. 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.

“If you look back at the last five years when we’ve had scares, they were all seen as buying opportunities. The rule among hedge funds and long-only funds is that you let the market sell off and watch for your entry point to get involved,” said Todd Martin, Asia equity strategist with Societe Generale in Hong Kong.

SEOUL CALM

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.

Seoul, a city of over 10 million, was bustling as normal on Wednesday, a sunny autumn day, although developments were being closely watched by office workers on TV and in newspapers. Editorials stepped up pressure on President Lee Myung-bak to respond more toughly than he has to past provocations by the North and two small groups held anti-North Korea protests.

President Barack Obama, woken up in the early hours to be told of the artillery strike, said he was outraged and pressed the North to stop its provocative actions.

Although U.S. officials said the joint exercise was scheduled before the attack by North Korea, it was reminiscent of a crisis in 1996 when then President Bill Clinton sent an aircraft carrier group through the Taiwan Strait after Beijing test-fired missiles into the channel between the mainland and Taiwan.

“My house was burned to the ground,” said Cho Soon-ae, 47, who was among 170 or so evacuated from Yeonpyeong on Wednesday.

“We’ve lost everything. I don’t even have extra underwear,” she said weeping, holding on to her sixth-grade daughter, as she landed at Incheon.

CALM THINGS DOWN

Despite the rhetoric, regional powers made clear they were looking for a diplomatic way to calm things down.

South Korea, its armed forces technically superior though about half the size of the North’s one-million-plus army, warned of “massive retaliation” if its neighbor attacked again.

But it was careful to avoid any immediate threat of retaliation which might spark an escalation of fighting across the Cold War’s last frontier.

China has long propped up the Pyongyang leadership, worried that a collapse of the North could bring instability to its own borders and also wary of a unified Korea that would be dominated by the United States, the key ally of the South.

Beijing said it had agreed with the United States to try to restart talks among regional powers over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

A number of analysts suspect that Tuesday’s attack may have been an attempt by North Korean leader Kim jong-il to raise his bargaining position ahead of disarmament talks which he has used in the past to win concessions and aid from the outside world, in particular the United States.

(Reporting by Seoul bureau, Michael Martina, Aileen Wang and Benjamin Kang Lim in Beijing, Kaori Kaneko and Yoko Kubota in Tokyo, Alister Bull, Paul Eckert, Phil Stewart and Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Ralph Jennings in Taipei; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Sanjeev Miglani)

U.S. aircraft carrier heads for Korean waters