SEOUL — The U.S. military announced Wednesday it is sending the USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group to Korean waters to take part in a joint U.S.-South Korean naval exercise, one day after North Korea bombarded a populated South Korean island near the disputed maritime border.
The strike group, which includes the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and four other ships, left Yokosuka Naval Base on Wednesday with 6,000 sailors and about 75 aircraft, said U.S. 7th Fleet spokesman Lt. Anthony Falvo. A South Korean spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff said he did not know how many South Korean troops or ships would be involved in the four-day exercise.
Two South Korean marines were killed in the attack on Tuesday and the bodies of two civilian workers were found at a construction site on the island on Wednesday, South Korean officials said. Also, 15 troops and four civilians were injured during the attack, officials said.
In Washington on Wednesday, the Obama administration called on China exert its influence over North Korea to prevent further provocative acts.
“China is pivotal in moving North Korea in a fundamentally different direction,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters. “We expect China to be clear, like we are, as to where the responsibility for the current situation, the current tension lies. This is something that we feel strongly about.”
He said U.S. diplomats had delivered that message to Chinese officials in Washington and Beijing in the aftermath of Tuesday’s attack.
Following the attack, U.S. airmen in South Korea, as well as civilian employees and contractors at Osan and Kunsan air bases, were placed under a no-alcohol order until further notice, 7th Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Denise Kerr said. There was no word from the U.S. Army if a no-alcohol order also was placed on soldiers in the country.
While the alcohol ban was a direct result of the attack, military officials downplayed the timing of next week’s exercise, saying it was not being held in retaliation for the attack on Yeonpyeong.
USFK said in a news release that the exercise was “defensive in nature and planned well before yesterday’s unprovoked military attack.”
“These (exercises) are not a direct reaction,” USFK spokesman David Oten said. “Basically, they’re unrelated.”
However, the exercise puts the U.S. and South Korea in an awkward position, according to Brendan Howe, a professor of international relations at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
“If you go ahead with [the exercise], it looks as if you’re being confrontational,” he said. “If you don’t, it looks as though you’re [backing] down in the face of North Korean pressure.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Charlie Reed in Yokota, Japan, and The Associated Press in Washington contributed to this report.