For the first time in about four years, a US aircraft carrier landed in South Korea on Friday, joining other armed forces ships in a show of force meant to send a message to North Korea. Prior to joint manoeuvres with South Korean forces, the USS Ronald Reagan and ships from its accompanying strike group berthed at a naval facility in the southern port city of Busan. Its landing is the largest deployment to date as part of a renewed effort to have more American ‘strategic assets’ operate in the region to dissuade North Korea.
The visit was intended to strengthen alliance ties and improve interoperability between the fleets, the strike group commander, Rear Admiral Michael Donnelly, told reporters on board the ship. As a message to North Korea, which conducted a record number of missile tests this year and looks to be ready to resume nuclear testing for the first time since 2017, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has pushed for more joint drills and other shows of military force.
Earlier joint exercises and deployments of the U.S. military have been criticised by North Korea as preparations for war and evidence of hostile policies by Washington and Seoul. Peace activists have also protested the drills because they believe they increase regional tension. The carrier’s visit, according to the US, was a ‘clear indication’ of its will to deploy and exercise strategic assets to thwart Pyongyang and strengthen regional security last week. However, when announcing the tour, the US Navy made no mention of North Korea, instead focusing on crew members travelling to Busan to volunteer at orphanages and learn more about the K-pop music culture.
The carrier will be in port for ‘many days’, according to officials, who declined to disclose more information on the impending joint manoeuvres. Shortly after the ship anchored, several crew members lined up to take COVID-19 examinations before being transported by bus into the city. Because they were not permitted to speak to the media, one crew member who begged not to be named said they were looking forward to a break but that the geopolitical tensions were ever-present.
This is an American aircraft carrier’s first trip to South Korea since 2018. Since then, several drills have been curtailed or abandoned because of diplomatic attempts with North Korea or the COVID-19 epidemic. Mason Richey, a professor at Seoul’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said that although the carrier visit is beneficial for political signalling, comforting Seoul, and training with South Korean military, it probably offers nothing to further discourage North Korea.
‘A carrier group visit doesn’t accomplish anything — it probably does the reverse — to deter Pyongyang from building more nuclear weapons and delivery systems, as well as conventional capabilities,’ he added. However, it underlines the fact that the allies under Yoon believe that closer military cooperation and interoperability is the best strategy for dealing with North Korea, according to Richey.
Concerns have been raised about the potential contribution of the roughly 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea in the event of a confrontation involving Taiwan. The US Navy’s efforts to uphold the regional security and stability that has existed for more than seven decades, according to Donnelly, depend heavily on cooperating with like-minded allies like South Korea. However, Donnelly acknowledged that such decisions belong in the hands of higher-up policymakers.
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