Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will visit the armed border dividing North and South Korea tomorrow, in a show of U.S. unity with its ally after the sinking of one of the South’s warships.
The tour of the so-called Demilitarized Zone is part of commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the Korean War. The visit coincides with the arrival of the 97,000-ton aircraft carrier USS George Washington at the southeastern port of Busan before U.S.-South Korea military exercises that have raised tensions with China.
The exercises are intended as “a strong sign of deterrence” to North Korea, Gates told American troops at Camp Casey in South Korea today. The trip to the Demilitarized Zone will highlight how important operations are there to the security of the Peninsula as well as the region, he said.
Clinton and Gates will conduct talks with their South Korean counterparts in a demonstration of unity after the March sinking of the Cheonan, which both countries have blamed on a North Korean torpedo. The meeting will cover the planned military exercises as well as diplomatic, political and trade issues. Clinton also will dine with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak.
Clinton said the trip was planned long ago to mark the Korean War, in which more than 55,000 Americans died.
“Because of the Cheonan, I think it’s particularly timely to show support,” she told reporters traveling with her in the Afghan capital Kabul today.
Clinton compared the U.S. commitment to South Korea through its years of economic struggle and instability to the Obama administration’s pledge to stick with Afghanistan after it emerges from the war that has raged since 2001. South Korea now ranks as one of the Group of 20 economic powers and a leader in Asia, she said.
“The U.S. has stayed with countries a lot longer than eight years,” Clinton said.
In East Asia, the aircraft carrier arrives tomorrow on its first visit to South Korea since October 2008, the Department of Defense reported on its website. Three destroyers will accompany the carrier.
While the series of exercises isn’t the largest the two nations have conducted, it is unusual in its timing, said Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. military’s Pacific region.
“Its significance is the fact that it is in response to what has occurred with Cheonan,” Willard told reporters in Seoul today, according to a transcript. “If we go back in history and look at other provocations that have occurred by North Korea directly toward the South, very often there has not been a military response like this show of force.”
The exercises will involve 10 U.S. ships and eight from South Korea and “a lot of aircraft,” Gates told the troops stationed at Camp Casey, according to a Pentagon transcript.
“There are going to be anti-submarine warfare operations. There’ll be aircraft operations using the Air Force training range,” Gates said. “So it’s going to be a large exercise and a pretty broad-ranged exercise.”
Gates arrived in South Korea yesterday. Clinton will be flying from Afghanistan to Seoul before heading to Hanoi for a meeting with counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The foreign ministers of China and both Koreas will also attend.
Plans to hold the drills in the Yellow Sea off South Korea’s west coast have raised Chinese concerns. The scheduled joint navy drill is “hostile to China,” Li Jie, a researcher at the Chinese navy’s military academy, said earlier this month in a commentary published in the China Daily newspaper.
China opposes foreign planes or vessels conducting activities that undermine China’s security interests, Qin Gang, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, said this month in response to questions about the naval drills.
The exercises are being conducted in international waters and are intended as a signal to North Korea, not China, Gates spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters at the Pentagon last week.
“These exercises are off the coast of Korea, not off the coast of China,” Gates told reporters traveling with him, according to a transcript. “There’s nothing provocative about them at all.”
Beyond Military Issues
The joint talks are an outgrowth of last year’s meeting between Lee and President Barack Obama in Washington, when they laid out a plan to extend ties beyond military issues to include areas such as economic development, human rights and counterterrorism.
The Korean War ended in a cease-fire that was never replaced by a peace treaty, and the two nations have remained technically at war ever since. South Korea’s 680,000 military personnel face as many as 1.2 million troops across the border in North Korea, which has built atomic bombs and long-range ballistic missiles.
Tensions between the two foes rose following the sinking of the Cheonan on March 26, in which 46 sailors were killed. South Korea, the U.S. and their allies have said a North Korean torpedo fired by a mini-submarine was to blame. The North has denied any involvement, and China has so far refused to fall in line with international condemnation of its ally.
Obama and Lee agreed on June 27 during an economic summit in Toronto that the countries would delay a planned transfer of wartime operational control.
Under the revised timetable, South Korea will assume wartime control of its forces on Dec. 1, 2015, rather than in April 2012. The delay was favored by some officials and former military officers in the East Asian nation who expressed concern that South Korea wasn’t ready for the transfer.