By Anne Flaherty - The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Monday announced plans for two major military exercises off the Korean peninsula in a show of force aimed at North Korea, which has been blamed by investigators for a deadly torpedo attack on a South Korean warship.
The White House called U.S. support for South Korea “unequivocal” and said in a statement that President Obama had directed military commanders to work with the South “to ensure readiness and to deter future aggression.”
North Korean leaders have denied responsibility and warned against any retaliation, but Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday blamed the North for the crisis.
“We are working hard to avoid an escalation of belligerence and provocation,” Clinton told reporters in Beijing, where she was to press China to support diplomatic action against its neighbor and ally, North Korea. “This is a highly precarious situation that the North Koreans have caused in the region.”
U.S. officials hope a united international response, coupled with a display of military might, will deter North Korea’s neo-Stalinist regime from ratcheting up tensions.
An international team of investigators last week blamed the North for the March 26 sinking of the South Korean corvette, the Cheonan. Forty-six South Koreans died aboard the ship, which investigators say was ripped in two by a torpedo.
The sinking was South Korea’s worst military disaster since the Korean War, which started 60 years ago and ended in a cease-fire in 1953. But no formal peace treaty was ever signed, and more than 28,000 U.S. troops remain stationed in the south, a critical regional ally.
Until Monday, the Obama administration had been intentionally vague on how it might respond to the report blaming North Korea for the attack, out of a reluctance to stoke tensions.
But on Tuesday, the Obama administration shifted gears, taking its cue from South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who announced Monday that he would cut all trade with the impoverished North.
A Defense Department spokesman, Bryan Whitman, said the joint U.S.-South Korean exercises would take place in the “near future” and would focus on detecting submarines and monitoring illicit activities.
The Pentagon confirmed the planned exercises are directly tied to the torpedo attack two months ago.
Jeff Breslau, spokesman for U.S. Pacific Fleet, said the U.S. and South Korea conduct more than a dozen military exercises a year. Several typically involve anti-submarine operations and maritime security, he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday called the evidence against North Korea “overwhelming and deeply troubling,” and called on the U.N. Security Council to take action.
“I am confident that the council ... will take measures appropriate to the gravity of the situation,” he said.
But any measure reprimanding North Korea will have to win the approval of all five veto-wielding members of the Security Council, including China. So far, China has sought to maintain a neutral stance and has questioned the evidence against Pyongyang.
But Clinton, in Beijing for trade and strategic talks, said she has discussed the Korean crisis with Chinese officials and China recognizes “the gravity of the situation we face.”
“The Chinese understand the reaction by the South Koreans, and they also understand our unique responsibility for the peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” she said.
Chinese President Hu Jintao, speaking as the Beijing talks opened, did not mention North Korea by name. But he said the U.S. and China share responsibility for “managing regional hotspots” and “safeguarding world peace and security.”
Speaking later, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Ma Zhaoxu, said China hoped “all the relevant parties will exercise restraint and remain coolheaded, appropriately handle issues of concern and prevent escalation of the event.”
Associated Press Writers Matthew Lee and John Heilprin contributed to this report.