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USS George Washington, S. Korea military drills send mixed signals to North Korea

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The whole show amounts to a minutely orchestrated response to North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette the Cheonan in March in which 46 sailors were killed. The exercises, featuring 20 US and South Korean ships and 200 warplanes, are slated to go on for four days – but in waters nowhere near where the Cheonan went down in the Yellow Sea.

Instead, in a bow to strenuous objections from China, they’ll take place in what Koreans call the East Sea, a name on which they strongly insist on instead of "The Sea of Japan" as it's called elsewhere.

The need to use a “neutral” term for those waters became clear last week after a Pentagon official, announcing plans for the exercises, raised eyebrows in Seoul by saying they would be held in “the Sea of Japan.” US officials subsequently said that all statements will refer to waters “off the east coast” – a turn of phrase that is critical if the Americans are to avoid a chorus of criticism from South Korean officials, political figures, and the media.

Raised eyebrows

On a much larger scale, the exercises are finally going to happen after weeks of uncertainty in which South Korea’s Defense Ministry pressed the Americans to stage them in the Yellow Sea as a show of force against North Korea.

“There is a difference between the South Korean and US position,” says Paik Hak-soon, senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, an influential Korean think tank. “The US will try to persuade South Korea to being more realistic, and the South Korean government will try to persuade the US to be more cooperative.”

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