By Jack Kim and Lee Jae-won, Reuters
NCHEON — A U.S. aircraft carrier group set off for Korean waters on Wednesday, a day after North Korea launched artillery shells on a South Korean island, a move likely to enrage Pyongyang and unsettle its ally, China.
The nuclear-powered USS George Washington, which carries 75 warplanes and has a crew of over 6,000, left a naval base south of Tokyo and would join exercises with South Korea from Sunday to the following Wednesday, U.S. officials in Seoul said.
“This exercise is defensive in nature,” U.S. Forces Korea said in a statement. “While planned well before yesterday’s unprovoked artillery attack, it demonstrates the strength of the ROK (South Korea)-U.S. alliance and our commitment to regional stability through deterrence.”
The move appeared aimed at reinforcing heavy pressure on China to rein in North Korea after the reclusive nation fired dozens of artillery shells at the South Korean island. Two South Korean soldiers were killed and houses set ablaze in the heaviest attack in the region since the Korean War ended in 1953.
But Seoul was bustling as normal on a sunny autumn day, although developments were being closely watched by office workers on TV and in newspapers. Editorials stepped up pressure on President Lee Myung-bak to respond more toughly than he has to past provocations by the North and two small groups held anti-North Korea protests.
Pyongyang said the firing was in reaction to military drills conducted by South Korea in the area at the time but Seoul said it had not been firing at the North.
President Barack Obama, woken up in the early hours to be told of the artillery strike, said he was outraged and pressed the North to stop its provocative actions.
Although U.S. officials said the joint exercise was scheduled before the attack by North Korea, it was reminiscent of a crisis in 1996 when then President Bill Clinton sent an aircraft carrier group through the Taiwan Strait after Beijing test-fired missiles into the channel between the mainland and Taiwan.
“An aircraft carrier is the most visible sign of power projection there is…you could see this as a form of pre-emptive deterrence,” said Lee Chung-min of Yonsei University in Seoul.
Tuesday’s bombardment nagged at global markets, already unsettled by worries over Ireland’s debt problem and looking to invest in less risky assets.
But South Korea’s markets, after sharp falls, recovered lost ground.
“If you look back at the last five years when we’ve had scares, they were all seen as buying opportunities. The rule among hedge funds and long-only funds is that you let the market sell off and watch for your entry point to get involved,” said Todd Martin, Asia equity strategist with Societe Generale in Hong Kong.
SEMI STATE OF WAR
“We’re in a semi state of war,” South Korean coastguard Kim Dong-jin told Reuters in the port city of Incheon where many residents of Yeonpyeong island fled in panic as the bombardment triggered a fire storm.
“My house was burned to the ground,” said Cho Soon-ae, 47, who was among 170 or so evacuated from Yeonpyeong on Wednesday.
“We’ve lost everything. I don’t even have extra underwear,” she said weeping, holding on to her sixth-grade daughter, as she landed at Incheon.
Despite the rhetoric, regional powers made clear they were looking for a diplomatic way to calm things down.
South Korea, its armed forces technically superior though about half the size of the North’s one-million-plus army, warned of “massive retaliation” if its neighbor attacked again.
But it was careful to avoid any immediate threat of retaliation which might spark an escalation of fighting across the Cold War’s last frontier.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan called on China to help rein in the hermit state.