SEOUL — The USS George Washington and three guided-missile destroyers from its strike group will visit South Korean ports this week in advance of their anticipated participation in a naval exercise next week off the peninsula.

The schedule of that exercise is expected to be announced when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates meet with South Korean leaders here Wednesday.

The exercise will be staged to send a message of strength to North Korea, and as a response to the North’s alleged involvement in the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan warship, which left 46 South Korean crewmen dead.

“The U.S. Navy maintains a robust forward presence in the Asia-Pacific region and the people of the Republic of Korea are our good friend and ally,” George Washington commanding officer Capt. David Lausman was quoted as saying in a release issued by U.S. Forces Korea.

“Our presence here is a testament to the strength of our alliance and our constant readiness to defend the Republic of Korea,” he said.

The USS George Washington, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, will visit the port of Pusan from Wednesday through Sunday. Joining it there will be the USS McCampbell and USS John S. McCain. The USS Lassen will visit the port of Chinhae.

The U.S. and South Korea were initially going to stage a large-scale naval exercise last month, but those plans were postponed until after the United Nations Security Council had a chance to review the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Cheonan.

A South Korean-led international team of investigators determined that a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine sank the Cheonan. North Korea has denied any involvement in the sinking.

Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement that expressed “deep concern” over the findings of the Cheonan investigative team, but did not identify who was responsible for sinking the ship and took “note” of North Korea’s denial of any responsibility for the incident.

U.S. and South Korean officials hailed the statement as sending a strong message to the North. North Korean U.N. Ambassador Sin Son Ho called the Security Council response a “great diplomatic victory” for his country.

China, North Korea’s most important ally, was reportedly the main force behind the watering down of the Security Council resolution. It is also very uneasy about the prospects that a U.S. aircraft carrier might be brought close to its eastern waters for a naval exercise in the Yellow Sea, near where the Cheonan was sunk.

While details of the exercise have yet to be released, South Korean media outlets – citing anonymous government sources – said the joint naval exercise had been moved from the Yellow Sea to the East Sea, on the other side of the peninsula, so as not to antagonize China. The South Korean Navy will, however, reportedly hold a smaller-scale, independent naval exercise in the Yellow Sea.

The George Washington last visited Pusan in 2008. While there this week, it will host a reception for local dignitaries and there will be guided tours of the ship, the release said. While in port, about 300 sailors from the ship will volunteer their time landscaping a home for the elderly, making repairs to a local school and visiting an orphanage.

“These deeds are a small token of goodwill on our part towards Korea, and lets them know we care,” ship chaplain Cmdr. Brian Haley was quoted as saying in the release. “This is also character-building for our sailors, so I think this is really a win-win opportunity for them and us.”

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