The U.S. and South Korea will launch joint military exercises this weekend to sharpen their readiness against North Korean aggression, the allies' defense chiefs, despite warnings from Pyongyang that the drills would deepen tensions on the peninsula.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Washington and Seoul want to send a "clear message" to North Korea after the March sinking of a South Korean warship.
Forty-six South Korean sailors were killed in the sinking, which an international investigation pinned on a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine near the Koreas' tense sea border. The waters have been the site of several bloody skirmishes in recent years.
"These defensive, combined exercises are designed to send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behavior must stop, and that we are committed to together enhancing our combined defensive capabilities," Gates and South Korea's Kim Tae-young said in a joint statement issued Tuesday after their talks.
North Korea flatly denies the accusations, and has warned that any punishment would trigger war.
Gates arrived in South Korea late Monday for a series of high-profile security talks with South Korean officials. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton landed in Seoul on Wednesday morning for a conference with Gates and their South Korean counterparts later in the day.
The U.S. and South Korea say North Korea must pay for the sinking of the Cheonan, the worst military attack on South Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War. The two Koreas remain in a state of war because the conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
South Korea's foreign minister, Yu Myung-hwan, told the YTN television network in an interview Tuesday that Washington is considering additional sanctions against North Korea. He said he expected a U.S. announcement on the issue on Wednesday.
Clinton on Tuesday described South Korea as a "stalwart ally" but did not mention possible new sanctions.
"It's particularly timely to show our strong support for South Korea, a stalwart ally, and send a very clear message to North Korea," Clinton told reporters in Kabul where she was attending an international conference on Afghanistan before departing for Seoul. "Tomorrow is a real show of solidarity."
Gates said he and Clinton are to visit the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas on Wednesday to demonstrate their "steadfast commitment" to South Korea, where Washington stations 28,500 troops as deterrence against the North. The 155-mile-long (250-kilometer-long) DMZ serves as a buffer between the two Koreas and is strewn with land mines and guarded by hundreds of thousands of combat-ready troops.
At the height of the Cold War, the two Koreas occasionally exchanged gunfire along the DMZ. In 1976, two U.S. Army officers were hacked to death there with their own axes by North Korean soldiers. Former President Bill Clinton, who toured the no-man's land in 1993, reportedly described it as "the scariest place on Earth."
South Korea and the U.S. plan to conduct a four-day combined maritime and air readiness exercise, dubbed "Invincible Spirit," off the Korean peninsula's east coast from July 25-28, their militaries said in a separate joint statement.
About 8,000 South Korean and U.S. troops, more than 20 alliance warships and submarines including the massive aircraft carrier USS George Washington and 200 military planes are to take part in next week's drills, it said. The F-22 Raptor — the world's most advanced fighter jets — will also be flying training missions in and around Korea for the first time, it added.
More joint drills would follow off Korea's east and west coasts in the coming months, the statement said.
South Korea and the U.S. have said the drills are defensive-oriented, but the North has warned the training would only intensify tension because it is nothing but a preparation for an invasion.
"The warmongers would be well advised to behave themselves, bearing deep in mind the consequences to be entailed by the above-said war moves," the North's government-run Minju Joson newspaper said in a commentary carried Tuesday by the official Korean Central News Agency.
China has also opposed South Korea-U.S. military exercise, particularly one in the Yellow Sea, saying that would inflame tension on the peninsula.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Sangwon Yoon in Seoul contributed to this report .
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