US aircraft carrier heads for Korean waters
Seoul, November 24, 2010
A US aircraft carrier group set off for Korean waters on Wednesday, a day after North Korea rained artillery shells on a South Korean island, in a move likely to enrage Pyongyang and unsettle its ally, China.
South Korea said the bodies of two civilians were found on the island after Tuesday's attack, which is likely to stir up more resentment in the country against its prickly neighbour.
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, US officials in Seoul said.
US Forces Korea said the exercise was defensive and had been planned well before Tuesday's attack.
"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.
A foreign ministry spokesman in Pyongyang said in a statement it had responded in "self-defence" and accused the South of firing shells into its waters near a disputed maritime border.
North Korea said the South was driving the pensinula to the "brink of war" with "reckless military provocation" and by postponing humanitarian aid, the North's official KCNA news agency said. It did not refer to the planned military drills.
The government in Seoul came under pressure for the military's slow response to the provocation, echoing similar complaints made when a warship was sunk in March in the same area, killing 46 sailors.
Defence Minister Kim Tae-young was grilled by lawmakers who said the government should have taken quicker and stronger retaliatory measures against the North's provocation.
"I am sorry that the government has not carried out ruthless bombing through jet fighters during the North's second round of shelling," said Kim Jang-soo, a lawmaker of ruling Grand National Party and a former defence minister.
Tuesday's attack was the heaviest in the region since the Korean War ended in 1953, and marked the first civilian deaths in an assault since the bombing of a South Korean airliner in 1987. - Reuters