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(LEAD) Joint South Korea-U.S. military drills begin as warning to North Korea

All Headlines 09:24 July 25, 2010

(ATTN: UPDATES U.S. aircraft carrier, quote in first five paras)
By Kim Deok-hyun

SEOUL, July 25 (Yonhap) -- A massive U.S. aircraft carrier sailed toward the Korean Peninsula's east coast Sunday as South Korea and the U.S. launched large-scale military exercises in a show of force against North Korea accused of sinking a South Korean warship that killed several dozen sailors.

The USS George Washington, along with several guided-missile destroyers from the two allies, left the southern South Korean port of Busan around 7:00 a.m., said an official at the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command.

"Some ships from the U.S. 7th Fleet, including a nuclear-powered submarine, are set to join them in the East Sea," the official said on the condition of anonymity. The Nimitz-class George Washington was deployed last week to Busan from its base in Japan

Code-named "Invincible Spirit," the four-day naval and air exercises in the East Sea are the first in a series planned by the allies in the coming months. The annual "Ulchi Freedom Guardian" in mid-August is the next scheduled event.

This week's drills brought the 97,000-ton George Washington plus a fleet of some 20 ships and more than 200 aircraft. F-22 Raptors, a new powerful U.S. Air Force asset, will fly training missions for the first time in Korean airspace.

The George Washington, carrying about 80 aircraft, including F-18 fighter jets and the E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft, has an operational range of 1,000 kilometers that covers all of North Korea and beyond.

Some 8,000 service members and personnel from the two nations' army, air force, navy and marines have also been called to the maneuvers, according to military officials.

Pyongyang bristled at the drills, threatening Saturday it will start "a retaliatory sacred war."

"The more desperately the U.S. imperialists brandish their nukes and the more zealously their lackeys follow them, the more rapidly the DPRK's nuclear deterrence will be bolstered up along the orbit of self-defense," the North's National Defense Commission said in a statement.

"The army and people of the DPRK will start a retaliatory sacred war of their own style based on nuclear deterrent any time necessary in order to counter the U.S. imperialists and the south Korean puppet forces deliberately pushing the situation to the brink of a war." the statement said.

DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name.

China, the North's closest ally, has also opposed the maneuvers. The venue of the drills reportedly was changed from the Yellow Sea to the East Sea to address China's concern.

In terms of military assets, this week's joint drills are the biggest since 1976, when the allies staged exercises in response to the ax murders of two U.S. Army officers by North Korean soldiers at the truce village of Panmunjom.

"By displaying the sheer size of military capabilities, the drills will deliver a stark warning to North Korea," Rear Adm. Kim Kyung-shik of South Korean Navy told reporters.

The drills will improve military readiness across the full spectrum of capabilities, including various air, ground and sea operations to defend South Korea from a range of threats by North Korea, Kim said.

Anti-submarine warfare operations are a key part of the joint drills to prevent further attacks like the sinking of the Cheonan, Kim said.

A Seoul-led multinational probe concluded in May that a torpedo fired by a midget North Korean submarine sank the Cheonan in the Yellow Sea on March 26. Forty-six sailors were killed.


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