July 21st, 2010
10:11 AM ET

Top U.S. officials go to South Korea to send message to the North

The United  States is going all out this week to show support for its key Asian ally, South  Korea, in the wake of one of its war  ships being sunk, as  President Barack Obama dispatched the secretaries of State and Defense to the Korean  peninsula.

The U.S. delegation of Defense  Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will hold a  first-ever meeting with their South Korean counterparts in Seoul to discuss numerous  diplomatic and military issues concerning North  Korea.  While the high-level meeting has long been  planned in accordance with the 60th anniversary of the start of the  Korean conflict, both countries are using the opportunity to send a message to  North Korea during heightened  tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang.

Gates said the meetings are "a gesture of solidarity with our Korean  allies and recognition that the issues of missile and nuclear proliferation in  the North continue to be serious challenges for us and for our allies and we  intend to take them seriously."

"We hope that North  Korea is paying  attention. We hope that it will understand that we are fully committed to the  defense of South  Korea," said  State Department spokesman, P.J.  Crowley.

But Korean  analysts say the message goes further than just North  Korea, it sends  a message to that country's allies.

"It conveys a message to not  only Pyongyang, but to Beijing and Moscow that there is  no weakening in the approach that the U.S.and South Korea adopted in response to the sinking of the [South Korean Navy  ship] Cheonan and the investigation report that followed," said Richard C. Bush, director and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank.

"Our message is that  North Korea is a  problem and that is what we need to respond to," he  said.

The Cheonan sank in March. A multinational investigation found North Korea responsible for the torpedo attack that killed 46 South Korean sailors. North Korea has denied any connection with the attack and said it is the victim of an international conspiracy.

After the meeting this week, the U.S. delegation will tour the infamous and heavily armed  Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two countries since the 1953 armistice  between the communist North and democratic South.

While providing the usual photo opportunity,  the visit to the DMZ is presumably designed to also send a message to  North  Korea with the high profile  U.S.  officials within sight of where almost a million North Korean troops are based.

"I think [the demilitarized  zone visit] is a useful reminder that we are in an armistice and that it is a  volatile region," Gates told reporters Tuesday.

When asked if North Korea has paid enough  of a price, between U.N. condemnation and the just-announced  military exercises, for the sinking of the South Korean ship, Gates said, "I think  this is an ongoing challenge that has to be managed over a period of years and I  think that the pressures continue slowly to build on the North."

On Tuesday the defense secretary also announced  details of joint military exercises over the next several months.  The first  will start in July with the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in a  submarine-hunting training session off the coast of Korea, close to North Korean waters.

After the March attack on the Cheonan, the  U.S.  announced there would be bolstered training efforts with the South Koreans but  did not provide details of the training until Tuesday's announcement.

A press release issued by the  U.S. command in  Korea said about 8,000  U.S.  and South Korean army, air force, navy and marines personnel will participate in the  exercise. Additionally about 20 surface ships and submarines from both navies  and some 200 air force and navy aircraft will be a part of the exercises  designed to be submarine-hunting in nature, according to U.S.  military officials.

"The exercise will sharpen our  military readiness by improving inter-operability and the combined operational  capability of the Republic of Korea (ROK) – U.S. combined forces, while demonstrating  the resolve and strength of the ROK – U.S. alliance," said the chairman of the South Korea's Joint  Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Han Min-koo.

"We stand fully prepared to  respond militarily to any further North Korean provocation," he  said. "It's going to be a pretty big exercise,"  Gates told U.S.  soldiers based about 20 miles from  the demilitarized zone as he announced the exercises.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint  Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, also will participate in the high-level  meetings with his South Korean counterpart.

"This is a really critical  part of the world, and certainly if you have an incident like Cheonan and a  country like North  Korea, you worry  a great deal about what else could happen here," Mullen said  Tuesday. "The size of the force and its  proximity to Seoul  make it dangerous," Mullen said.

"It's got an unpredictable  leadership, and that's indicative in what happened to Cheonan," he  said.

State Department spokesman Crowley said, "We hope that it will take steps as a  result to reduce tensions, improve relations with its neighbors, cease these  provocative actions, and work more constructively towards  denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."

While both sides  hope to rattle the cage of North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il, there is little  thought the high-level meetings and military exercises will change Kim's mind in  giving up on his nuclear program.

"There is no  chance North  Korea will  negotiate seriously and give up its nuclear weapons, I think he's locked in,"  Bush of the Brookings Institution said.

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Filed under: Security Brief
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Willie Middleton

    As for the current military exercises, it's an edging on by the U.S. to see if they (North Korea) will take this to the next level.

    July 21, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
  2. kim

    fight while we live, fight for peace.

    July 21, 2010 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |
  3. preaxadocoorn

    Hey! Just wanted to say Hi!


    July 31, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Dank

    hopefully peace comes to both Koreas so that the divided nation could become one again. Such a shame

    September 30, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |