Reporting from Seoul —
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived in Seoul on Monday for a high-level show of unity expected to include the announcement of major military exercises by the U.S. and South Korea four months after the sinking of a South Korean warship.
Gates will be joined in Seoul by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in talks with South Korean counterparts, meetings that U.S. officials said were aimed at sending a signal to North Korea in response to the sinking of the Cheonan, allegedly by Northern forces.
"We're trying to send a clear message of deterrence," said a senior U.S. Defense official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. He added that the message was that officials in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, should "reconsider this sort of behavior that they've been engaged in."
North Korea has denied involvement in the ship sinking. An investigation that was led by South Korean officials and included experts from five other nations concluded that the vessel was sunk by a North Korean torpedo.
Gates arrived in Seoul late Monday and did not make remarks to reporters during the 15-hour trip. This week's talks come 60 years after the start of the Korean War, at a time when the Cheonan incident has raised tensions on the Korean peninsula and forced closer examination of the U.S.-South Korean military alliance. About 40,000 U.S. troops are stationed in the South.
Having Gates and Clinton together permits "higher-level strategic discussions about the relationship between our two countries cutting across military, diplomatic and political trade issues — the whole range," the U.S. Defense official said.
The upcoming military exercises, which officials said would begin soon and involve air and naval units, have been in the works since the March 26 sinking, but an official announcement was delayed until after United Nations Security Council deliberations on the incident concluded this month.
The council's response — a statement that condemned the sinking but stopped short of blaming North Korea — has elevated the importance of the Gates-Clinton visit and of the coming exercises.
U.S. officials said they were unable to recall a previous instance in which the secretaries of State and Defense had traveled to Seoul at the same time for meetings with South Korean counterparts. Gates and Clinton also are scheduled to meet with South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak.
The military drills are likely to involve a large number of naval vessels and aircraft and will take place in both the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said. They will continue over a period of months.
In addition to sending a message to the North, U.S. officials said the drills were aimed at improving South Korea's capabilities in anti-submarine warfare, which appear to have come up short in the Cheonan incident.
On Sunday, the U.S. military announced that the aircraft carrier George Washington, based in Japan, would make a port call in the South Korean port of Busan while Gates and Clinton are in Seoul.
"It is there as an additional manifestation of our steadfast commitment to the security of the Republic of Korea," Morrell said, adding that the George Washington would go from Busan "to begin participating in the first of the exercises."
China has raised concerns that military drills in the Yellow Sea could deepen tensions on the Korean peninsula, and media reports from the region have suggested that Beijing was especially concerned about the George Washington's visit. U.S. officials have refused to comment on where the aircraft carrier will sail during the exercises.