Obama Sends Carrier, Vows to Support South Korea After Attack

U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama. Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. sent an aircraft carrier for military exercises off the Korean Peninsula in a show of strength after North Korea fired artillery onto South Korean territory for the first time in half a century.

President Barack Obama dispatched the USS George Washington to take part in the drills, scheduled for Nov. 28 to Dec. 1 in the Yellow Sea off the Korean Peninsula’s western coast, and the U.S. administration pressed China to use its influence on Kim Jong Il’s government to ease tension in the region.

“The United States stands shoulder to shoulder with our close friend and ally,” Obama told South Korean President Lee Myung Bak Lee in a Nov. 23 telephone call, according to a White House statement. North Korea must stop its “provocative actions, which will only lead to further isolation.” The two leaders agreed that further sanctions against North Korea may be necessary, Lee’s office said in a statement.

Obama plans to call Chinese President Hu Jintao to discuss the incident, according to administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversation hadn’t been set up. China is North Korea’s biggest economic and political ally.

“China does have influence with North Korea and we would hope and expect China would use that influence,” U.S. State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said yesterday.

Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Chinese leadership “is absolutely critical” in dealing with North Korea.

Succession Question

North Korea’s action “is also tied, we think, to the succession of this young 27-year-old who’s going to take over at some point in the future,” Mullen said in an interview on the ABC program “The View,” referring to the North Korean leader’s youngest son, Kim Jong-Un.

Before speaking with Lee, Obama met in the White House Situation Room with his top security advisers, including Mullen, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, the White House said.

Tensions with North Korea have risen in the past year after the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March killed 46 sailors. Obama this week dispatched envoy Stephen Bosworth to Asia after a U.S. scientist reported that North Korea said it had built a uranium-enrichment plant.

“The combination of the enrichment revelations and then this artillery attack really make it a front-burner issue” for the U.S., said Victor Cha, who holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Raised Alert

South Korea raised its military alert status to the second-highest level after North Korea on Nov. 23 fired onto the island of Yeonpyeong, Defense Minister Kim Tae Young said in Seoul. Four people were killed and 20 wounded, mostly soldiers, in the first attack of its kind since the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan yesterday called the incident a “barbaric act.” His government will consider fresh sanctions against North Korea, Economy Minister Banri Kaieda said.

Japan in May tightened controls on sending money to North Korea in response to the Cheonan sinking, lowering the cap on undeclared cash transfers to 3 million yen ($36,000) from 10 million yen.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, speaking in parliament in Berlin, said he’d summoned the North Korean ambassador to communicate Germany’s anger over the artillery salvo. Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the attack in the “strongest terms” in a telephone call with Lee, a government statement said.

Artillery Exchange

North Korea initiated the exchange of artillery fire, Bosworth told reporters in Beijing on Nov. 23 after meeting with Chinese officials.

The North Korean army’s Supreme Command, in a statement issued through the official Korean Central News Agency, accused South Korea of firing first and warned of “merciless military attacks” if its territory is violated.

China is increasingly frustrated with the actions of its ally North Korea, though there likely won’t be any immediate change to Chinese policy, Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University, said in an interview.

“This attack proves that North Korea is entirely a minus to China’s foreign policy,” Zhu said. “I see growing frustration and I see a new imperative to overhaul the policy.”

China’s Response

“We hope the parties do more to contribute to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing on Nov. 23.

Christopher Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and a former assistant secretary of state, said China has a crucial role in resolving the crisis.

“Neither the U.S. nor the South Koreans can address this issue without China,” Hill said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “This has to be addressed and I think that China is probably the key in addressing it.”

Shada Islam, an Asia expert at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, said national interests will determine when China loses patience with North Korea.

“China doesn’t believe in megaphone diplomacy in most cases, so don’t judge Beijing by its public statements but rather by what they do behind the scenes,” Islam said in an interview. “The Chinese leadership isn’t worried about how the world sees them.”

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