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The North’s powerful National Defense Commission issued a similar threat Saturday, saying the country “will start a retaliatory sacred war.”

Pyongyang’s rhetoric was seen by most as bluster, but its angry response to the maneuvers underscores the rising tension in the region.

Capt. Ross Myers, the commander of the George Washington’s air wing, said the exercises were not intended to raise tensions.

But the George Washington, one of the biggest ships in the U.S. Navy, is a potent symbol of American military power, with about 5,000 sailors and aviators and the capacity to carry up to 70 planes.

North Korea may contend that it is a provocation, but I would say the opposite,” Capt. Myers said. “It is a provocation to those who don’t want peace and stability. North Korea doesn’t want this. They know that one of South Korea’s strengths is its alliance with the United States.”

Capt. Myers said North Korea’s threats to retaliate are being taken seriously, however.

“There is a lot they can do,” he said. “They have ships; they have subs; they have airplanes. They are a credible threat.”

The maneuvers underscore a diplomatic blitz by the United States aimed at further tightening the screws on North Korea.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Wednesday, after visiting the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas, that the United States would slap new sanctions on the North to stifle its nuclear ambitions and punish it for the Cheonan sinking.

The European Union also is considering new sanctions on North Korea.

The deployment of the supercarrier to the area off Korea was also raising eyebrows in China, which is believed to have been concerned about having the carrier operate too close to its own shores.

In what has been seen as a bow to Chinese sensitivities, the George Washington will not be joining the maneuvers later this summer in the Yellow Sea.

But Adm. Cloyd, the top U.S. official in the exercise, said the carrier may be back.

“We reserve the right to exercise in international waters anywhere in the world,” he said.

The Nimitz-class carrier had been expected to join in exercises — code-named “Invincible Spirit” — off South Korea sooner, but the Navy delayed those plans as the United Nations Security Council met to deliberate what action it should take over the Cheonan sinking.

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