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SEOUL (Kyodo) The United States and South Korea on Sunday began a four-day joint naval exercise, the first major naval drill by the two allies since the sinking of a South Korean warship in March near the North Korean border.

Japan sent four Maritime Self-Defense Force officers to observe the exercise from aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington to demonstrate its cooperation with the United States and South Korea in security areas against the North.

About 8,000 service members from the two countries, more than 20 surface vessels and submarines, including the George Washington, a 97,000-ton nuclear-powered carrier based in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, and about 200 aircraft, including four U.S. F-22 Raptor stealth fighters, are taking part in the exercise in the Sea of Japan.

The drill, code-named “Invincible Spirit,” is the first in a series of joint military exercises to be held both at sea and on land in the coming months by the U.S. and South Korea “to send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behavior must stop,” and that they are “committed to together enhancing (their) combined defensive capabilities.”

Tensions have been high since the March 26 sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan.

International investigators led by South Korea have concluded that a North Korean submarine sank the 1,200-ton corvette with a torpedo, killing 46 sailors on board.

North Korea has denied any involvement.

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