A US aircraft carrier has arrived in South Korea for the first time in nearly four years, and is set to join other military ships in a show of force designed to send a message to North Korea.
The USS Ronald Reagan and ships from its escort strike group docked at a naval base in the southern port city of Busan ahead of joint exercises with South Korean forces.
Its arrival represents the most significant deployment to date, with a new push to have more US “strategic assets” in the region to deter North Korea.
The commander of the strike group, Admiral Michael Donnelly, told reporters aboard the ship that the visit was aimed at building allies’ relationships and promoting inter-naval action.
A US soldier inspects an F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter aircraft on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in Busan, South Korea, Friday, September 23, 2022. source: AAP / AP
We leave the messages to the diplomats.
Asked about any reference to North Korea, he said, “We leave messages to the diplomats,” but added that the joint exercises would ensure that allies were able to respond to all threats.
“It’s an opportunity for us to practice tactics and operations,” Donnelly said.
South Korean President Yoon Seok-yul has pushed for more joint exercises and other displays of military force as a warning to North Korea, which this year conducted a record number of missile tests and appears to be preparing to resume nuclear tests for the first time since then. 2017.
North Korea denounced the previous US military deployment and the joint exercises as rehearsals for war and evidence of the hostile policies of Washington and Seoul.
The exercises sparked protests from peace activists, who said they were raising tensions in the region.
The United States said last week that the tanker’s visit was “clear evidence” of its commitment to deploying and exercising strategic assets to deter Pyongyang and enhance regional security.
However, when announcing the visit, the US Navy made no mention of North Korea, referring only to a “regularly scheduled port visit” and emphasizing crew members who visit Busan to volunteer at orphanages and explore the K-pop music scene.
Demonstrators organize a protest march opposing the planned joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea in front of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday, September 22, 2022. source: AAP / AP
The visit is the first to South Korea by a US aircraft carrier since 2018. Since then, many exercises have been scaled back or canceled due to diplomatic efforts with North Korea or the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tougher military coordination
Mason Ritchie, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said the carrier’s visit is useful for political signaling, reassuring Seoul, and training with South Korean forces, but likely won’t do much to deter North Korea.
“The carrier group’s visit certainly does little – in fact, likely to do the opposite – to dissuade Pyongyang from developing more nuclear weapons and launch systems, as well as conventional capabilities,” he said.
This, Mr. Ritchie added, underscores, however, that allies under Mr. Yoon see tight military coordination and interoperability as the best way to deal with North Korea.
Questions have been raised about the role the approximately 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea might play if conflict over Taiwan erupts.
Donnelly said such questions pertain to the policymakers above him, but said that working with like-minded allies like South Korea is an essential part of the US Navy’s efforts to maintain regional security and stability that have been in place for more than seven decades.