U.S. aircraft carrier arrives in South Korea as warning to North

U.S. aircraft carrier arrived in South Korea on Friday for the first time in about four years.

It is set to join other military vessels in a show of force intended to send a message to North Korea.

USS Ronald Reagan and ships from its accompanying strike group docked at a naval base in the southern port city of Busan ahead of joint drills with South Korean forces.

Its arrival marks the most significant deployment yet under a new push to have more U.S. “strategic assets” operate in the area to deter North Korea.

Strike group commander Rear Admiral Michael Donnelly told reporters aboard the ship that the visit was designed to build allied relations and boost interoperability between the navies.

“We are leaving messages to diplomats. It’s an opportunity for us to practice tactics and operations,” Donnelly said.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has pushed for more joint exercises and other displays of military power as a warning to North Korea.

This year North Korea conducted a record number of missile tests and appears to be preparing to resume nuclear testing for the first time since 2017.

North Korea has denounced previous U.S. military deployments and joint drills as rehearsals for war and proof of hostile policies by Washington and Seoul.

The drills have also sparked protests by peace activists who said they raise regional tensions.

Earlier, United States said the carrier’s visit was a “clear demonstration” of its commitment to deploy and exercise strategic assets to deter Pyongyang and enhance regional security.

In announcing the visit, however, the U.S. Navy made no mention of North Korea.

It only referred to a “regularly scheduled port visit” and emphasising crew members visiting Busan to volunteer at orphanages and explore the K-pop music scene.

Officials declined to provide details of the upcoming joint drills, but said the carrier would be in port for “several days.”

Hours after the ship docked, long lines of crewmembers formed as they took COVID-19 tests before being bused into the city.

One crew member, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorised to speak to the media, said that they were looking forward to a break but geopolitical tensions remained.

“You can’t ever really forget what we’re all here for,” the crew member told Reuters.

The visit was the first to South Korea by an American aircraft carrier since 2018. Many drills were since scaled back or cancelled due to diplomatic efforts with North Korea or because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The carrier visit was useful for political signaling, reassuring Seoul, and training with South Korean forces.

However, it likely does little to further deter North Korea, said Mason Richey, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

“A carrier group visit certainly doesn’t do much in fact, it likely does the opposite to discourage Pyongyang from developing more nuclear weapons and delivery systems, as well as conventional capabilities,” he said.

It nevertheless underscores that under Yoon the allies see tighter military coordination and interoperability as the best way to deal with North Korea, Richey added.

Questions have risen over the role the roughly 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea might play if conflict erupts over Taiwan.

Donnelly said such questions are for policymakers above him, but said that operating with like-minded allies such as South Korea was a key part of the U.S. Navy’s efforts to maintain the regional security and stability. (Reuters/NAN) 

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