SEOUL — Eleven U.S. and South Korean warships, along with a half-dozen aircraft, have come together this week to practice their anti-submarine capabilities in the Yellow Sea, where two years ago a North Korean torpedo was blamed for sinking a South Korean corvette and killing 46 sailors.
Military officials with the two countries have been tight-lipped about details of the five-day exercise that runs through Friday, saying only it is an annual exercise being staged well away from the disputed maritime border between the two Koreas.
The anti-submarine exercise follows Monday morning’s exercise held by the South Korean military around the Yellow Sea islands near the border. It also comes a week ahead of the annual overlapping U.S.-South Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises that start next Monday.
In response to Monday’s events, North Korea threatened “merciless retaliatory strikes,” but the exercise went on without incident.
The exercises and threats are getting more than their usual amount of attention because of the uncertainty surrounding Kim Jong Un’s rise to power in North Korea after the December death of his father, Kim Jong Il, and meetings scheduled this week between representatives of the U.S. and the North. The envoys are expected to discuss the possible resumption of the “six-party talks” aimed at halting the North’s nuclear weapons program. Those talks — which also involved South Korea, China, Japan and Russia — were abandoned in 2009.
U.S. Naval Forces Korea spokesman Lt. Jared Apollo Burgamy said, “The anti-submarine exercise is occurring in the Yellow Sea well south of the [Military Demarcation Line].
“The exercise focuses on combined interoperability,” he said. “The anti-submarine exercise is one of many routine unit-level combined naval exercises held in the Korean theater of operations.”
Sources with the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff and Ministry of National Defense — who spoke on the customary condition that they not be identified — said the exercise was designed to prepare for a potential attack from North Korean submarines.
“We are presupposing that North Korea’s submarines are the submarines of our enemy,” the MND source said.
South Korean officials declined to elaborate, or to say how elements of the exercise might have been revised after the March 26, 2010, sinking of the Cheonan in the Yellow Sea.
An international panel of investigators determined that a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine was to blame for that attack. The North has denied responsibility.
U.S. Forces Korea previously announced that the Key Resolve command post exercise will run from Monday to March 9 and will involve about 2,100 U.S. personnel, including about 800 coming from outside the Korean peninsula.
The Foal Eagle field exercise will run from March 1 to April 30, with approximately 11,000 U.S. forces, most of whom will travel to South Korea specifically for the exercise. As many as 200,000 South Korean troops will reportedly participate in one or more aspects of the exercises.