SEOUL — The U.S. military canceled this week’s dress rehearsal for the evacuation of American civilians from South Korea amid growing tensions on the peninsula.
U.S. Forces Korea said in a statement Tuesday the Courageous Channel exercise — which was to run Thursday through Monday — was cancelled to avoid the appearance that it was scheduled in response to the March sinking of a South Korean warship or the subsequent investigation.
South Korean investigators are expected to announce Thursday that a North Korean torpedo was responsible for the March 26 explosion that ripped the Cheonan patrol ship in two — killing 46 sailors — near the disputed Yellow Sea border between the two Koreas.
“With the sensitivities surrounding (the) release of the investigation results, we thought this was a wise course of action at this time,” USFK chief of staff and U.S. 8th Army commander Lt. Gen. Joseph Fil was quoted as saying in the release.
“The decision was made in coordination with the (South Korean) government and the U.S. State Department,” Fil said.
Courageous Channel is a routine exercise conducted annually since 1996.
“It is never connected to any specific events or current situations,” the statement said.
North Korea has publicly denied responsibility for the sinking. However, investigators reportedly believe traces of explosives found on the wreckage of the ship and screw pieces found on the ocean floor suggest a North Korean torpedo brought down the Cheonan.
Korea experts and media sources have said South Korea plans to announce a number of steps it will take in retaliation, including:
• Calling on the UN Security Council to take action against North Korea.
• Strengthening South Korean-U.S. defenses against North Korean acts of aggression, including the staging of a joint anti-submarine exercise in the Yellow Sea later this year.
• Resuming psychological operations, including the broadcasting of anti-North Korean propaganda to the North.
• Reviewing all inter-Korean economic projects, and promoting international financial sanctions against North Korea.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry announced this week that it has already asked other government agencies to suspend any inter-Korean projects that financially benefit North Korea, and that it has told private South Korean companies not to enter into any new deals that would result in money or resources heading north.
The clampdown will not extend to humanitarian aid supplied to North Korea, officials said.
Under the noncombatant evacuation, or NEO, about 10,000 people pass through evacuation control centers set up at U.S. military bases across the peninsula to practice for a real-life withdrawal in the event of an attack or natural disaster. A small number of volunteers usually evacuate all the way to Japan via ferry as part of the exercise.
In addition to U.S. government noncombatants, the U.S. would have to evacuate about 140,000 civilians from South Korea during an emergency, including private U.S. citizens and their families, and citizens of the countries that make up the UN Command.