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Top U.S. officials go to South Korea to send message to the North

By Mike Mount, CNN Senior Pentagon Producer
  • The U.S. secretaries of State and Defense are leading a delegation to South Korea
  • Both countries are sending a message to North Korea during heightened tensions
  • A South Korean warship sank in March and investigators blamed North Korea
  • The U.S. delegation will tour the infamous Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea

Washington (CNN) -- The United States is going all out this week to show support for its key Asian ally, South Korea, in the wake of one of its war ships being sunk, as President Barack Obama dispatched the secretaries of State and Defense to the Korean peninsula.

The U.S. delegation of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will hold a first-ever meeting with their South Korean counterparts in Seoul to discuss numerous diplomatic and military issues concerning North Korea.

While the high-level meeting has long been planned in accordance with the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean conflict, both countries are using the opportunity to send a message to North Korea during heightened tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang.

Gates said the meetings are "a gesture of solidarity with our Korean allies and recognition that the issues of missile and nuclear proliferation in the North continue to be serious challenges for us and for our allies and we intend to take them seriously."

"We hope that North Korea is paying attention. We hope that it will understand that we are fully committed to the defense of South Korea," said State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley.

But Korean analysts say the message goes further than just North Korea, it sends a message to that country's allies.

"It conveys a message to not only Pyongyang, but to Beijing and Moscow that there is no weakening in the approach that the U.S.and South Korea adopted in response to the sinking of the [South Korean Navy ship] Cheonan and the investigation report that followed," said Richard C. Bush, director and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank.

"Our message is that North Korea is a problem and that is what we need to respond to," he said.

The Cheonan sank in March. A multinational investigation found North Korea responsible for the torpedo attack that killed 46 South Korean sailors. North Korea has denied any connection with the attack and said it is the victim of an international conspiracy.

After the meeting this week, the U.S. delegation will tour the infamous and heavily armed Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two countries since the 1953 armistice between the communist North and democratic South.

While providing the usual photo opportunity, the visit to the DMZ is presumably designed to also send a message to North Korea with the high profile U.S. officials within sight of where almost a million North Korean troops are based.

"I think [the demilitarized zone visit] is a useful reminder that we are in an armistice and that it is a volatile region," Gates told reporters Tuesday.

When asked if North Korea has paid enough of a price, between U.N. condemnation and the just-announced military exercises, for the sinking of the South Korean ship, Gates said, "I think this is an ongoing challenge that has to be managed over a period of years and I think that the pressures continue slowly to build on the North."

On Tuesday the defense secretary also announced details of joint military exercises over the next several months. The first will start in July with the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in a submarine-hunting training session off the coast of Korea, close to North Korean waters.

After the March attack on the Cheonan, the U.S. announced there would be bolstered training efforts with the South Koreans but did not provide details of the training until Tuesday's announcement.

A press release issued by the U.S. command in Korea said about 8,000 U.S. and South Korean army, air force, navy and marines personnel will participate in the exercise. Additionally about 20 surface ships and submarines from both navies and some 200 air force and navy aircraft will be a part of the exercises designed to be submarine-hunting in nature, according to U.S. military officials.

"The exercise will sharpen our military readiness by improving inter-operability and the combined operational capability of the Republic of Korea (ROK) - U.S. combined forces, while demonstrating the resolve and strength of the ROK - U.S. alliance," said the chairman of the South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Han Min-koo.

"We stand fully prepared to respond militarily to any further North Korean provocation," he said.

"It's going to be a pretty big exercise," Gates told U.S. soldiers based about 20 miles from the demilitarized zone as he announced the exercises.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, also will participate in the high-level meetings with his South Korean counterpart.

"This is a really critical part of the world, and certainly if you have an incident like Cheonan and a country like North Korea, you worry a great deal about what else could happen here," Mullen said Tuesday.

"The size of the force and its proximity to Seoul make it dangerous," Mullen said.

"It's got an unpredictable leadership, and that's indicative in what happened to Cheonan," he said.

State Department spokesman Crowley said, "We hope that it will take steps as a result to reduce tensions, improve relations with its neighbors, cease these provocative actions, and work more constructively towards denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."

While both sides hope to rattle the cage of North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il, there is little thought the high-level meetings and military exercises will change Kim's mind in giving up on his nuclear program.

"There is no chance North Korea will negotiate seriously and give up its nuclear weapons, I think he's locked in," Bush of the Brookings Institution said.