A US aircraft carrier group set off for Korean waters on Wednesday, a day after North Korea shelled a South Korean island, in 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, US officials in Seoul said.
“This exercise is defensive in nature,” US Forces Korea said in a statement. “While planned well before Tuesday’s unprovoked artillery attack, it demonstrates the strength of the ROK (South Korea)-US alliance and our commitment to regional stability through deterrence.”
North Korea said Seoul 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. The dispatch did not refer to the planned military drills.
The United States and Japan urged China to do more to rein in North Korea after the reclusive nation fired scores of artillery shells on Tuesday at a South Korean island near the maritime boundary between the two sides.
Beijing will not be pleased by the deployment of the aircraft carrier and will not respond to such pressure, said Xu Guangyu, a retired major-general in the People’s Liberation Army. Beijing has previously said an earlier plan to send the USS George Washington to US-South Korea joint exercises threatened long-term damage to Sino-US relations.
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.
Editorials stepped up pressure on President Lee Myung-bak to respond more toughly than he has to past provocations by the North.
'I thought we were at war'
Stunned survivors of North Korea’s artillery strike against a remote island recounted the shelling on Wednesday to a nation furious and on edge over one of the worst attacks since the Korean War.
The discovery of two dead civilians among the blackened rubble on Yeonpyeong island raised the toll to four and heightened the rage, as street protesters burnt the North Korean flag and newspapers called for revenge.
“We were confused and at a total loss... I heard the shrill noise of incoming shells,” said Kim Kil-Soo, 51, recounting how he saw shelves topple over in offices and a supermarket. “I thought at that time we were at war.”
An exodus from the island continued Wednesday as 346 villagers arrived at port on two coastguard ships. (AFP)