The U.S. aircraft carrier USS George Washington will participate in a joint naval exercise with South Korea next week in the Yellow Sea, the same waters west of the Korean peninsula where North Korea is accused of sinking a South Korean warship last March, ABC News has learned.
A U.S. official said the carrier, which operates from its home port in Japan, "will be sent to the waters off South Korea within coming days to participate in joint exercises" with the South Korean navy.
Slated to begin June 8, the official said this exercise will be "separate and distinct" from an upcoming anti-submarine warfare exercise that Pentagon officials had said recently would be occurring "in the near future." The upcoming exercise was first reported by South Korea's Yonhap News Agency.
Another U.S. official says additional U.S warships will be participating in the exercise, including a Japan-based Aegis destroyer and a Hawaii-based nuclear submarine. South Korea will also deploy a destroyer, a submarine and F-15 fighter jets to participate in the exercise.
Last week, South Korea conducted a one-day anti-submarine exercise close to where the incident with North Korea had occurred.
This won't the first time American aircraft carriers have participated in a major military exercises with South Korea. Last October, the USS George Washington participated in a practice operation in the Yellow Sea with the South Korean navy, and every year in March, the U.S. typically joins its southeast Asian ally for exercises at sea.
But the latest involvement of the U.S. military in South Korean exercises comes at a time of heightened tensions between North and South Korea after 46 South Korean sailors died in March when its warship Cheonan sunk under mysterious circumstances near a disputed maritime border.
Following a months-long international investigation that included salvaging the ship from the ocean floor, South Korea accused North Korea last week of using a mini-submarine to launch a torpedo that sunk the warship.
In a statement issued by the White House after South Korea announced its findings, the United States said South Korea could count on its full support. It also said "U.S. support for South Korea's defense is unequivocal."
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said last week that as part of that commitment, the South Korean findings had prompted the U.S. and South Korea to hold two military exercises with South Korea in the "near future." He said the U.S. had committed to holding an anti-submarine exercise and was in discussions about conducting a maritime interdiction training exercise.
U.S. Has Condemned North Korean Attack
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a trip to Asia last week that the evidence against North Korea is "overwhelming and condemning" and it was "important to send a clear message to North Korea that provocative actions have consequences."
"We cannot allow this attack on South Korea to go unanswered by the international community," she said. "This will not be and cannot be business as usual. There must be an international, not just a regional, but an international response."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates will be attending this week's Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore where among several bilateral meetings with regional Defense officials he will meet with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young.