SEOUL, South Korea - The United States and South Korea will stage joint military exercises this weekend to sharpen their readiness against North Korean aggression, the allies' defense chiefs said yesterday, despite warnings from Pyongyang that the drills would deepen tensions on the peninsula.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Washington and Seoul want to send a "clear message" to North Korea after the March sinking of a South Korean warship. Forty-six South Korean sailors were killed in the sinking, which an international investigation pinned on a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine near the Koreas' tense sea border.

"These defensive, combined exercises are designed to send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behavior must stop, and that we are committed to together enhancing our combined defensive capabilities," Gates and the South's Kim Tae-young said in a joint statement yesterday after their talks.

The North flatly denies the accusations, and has warned that any punishment would trigger war.

Gates arrived in South Korea late Monday for a series of high-profile security talks with its officials. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was to join a conference with Gates and their South Korean counterparts today.

The two allies say the North must pay for the sinking of the Cheonan, the worst military attack on the South since the 1950-53 Korean War.

The South's foreign minister, Yu Myung-hwan, said in an interview that Washington is considering additional sanctions against the North. - AP

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