US aircraft carrier arrives in South Korea, warns North Korea

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BUSAN, South Korea (Reuters) – A U.S. aircraft carrier arrived in South Korea for the first time in about four years on Friday, preparing to join other warships in a show of force aimed at sending a message to North Korea.

The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the ships of its attached battle group docked at a naval base in the southern port city of Busan ahead of joint exercises with the South Korean military.

Its arrival marks the most significant deployment under a new U.S. effort to deploy more “strategic assets” in the region to deter North Korea.

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Rear Admiral Michael Donnelly, commander of the strike group, told reporters on board that the visit was aimed at building allied relations and promoting interoperability among the navies.

When asked about any signal to North Korea, he said: “We are leaving a message to the diplomats,” but added that the joint exercises would ensure that the allies can respond to all threats.

“This is our chance to practice tactics and fight,” Donnelly said.

South Korean President Yoon Se-yeol has pushed for more joint exercises and other displays of military might as a warning to North Korea, which has conducted a record number of missile tests this year and appears to be preparing to resume nuclear tests for the first time since 2017.

North Korea denounced previous U.S. military deployments and joint exercises as a rehearsal for war and proof of Washington and Seoul’s hostile policies. The drills also sparked protests from peaceful activists who said they would heighten regional tensions.

Last week, the U.S. said the carrier’s visit “clearly demonstrated” its commitment to deploying and exercising strategic assets to deter Pyongyang and enhance regional security.

In announcing the visit, however, the U.S. Navy made no mention of North Korea, only “regular port visits,” and emphasized that crew members traveling to Busan volunteered at orphanages and explored the K-pop music scene.

Officials declined to provide details of the upcoming joint exercise, but said the carrier would be in port for “a few days.” Hours after the ship docked, the crew lined up to be tested for COVID-19 before being sent to the city.

One crew member, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said they were looking forward to the rest, but geopolitical tensions persisted.

“You never really forget what we’re here for,” the crew told Reuters.

It was the first visit by a U.S. aircraft carrier to South Korea since 2018. Many exercises have since been scaled back or canceled due to diplomatic efforts with North Korea or the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mason Ritchie, a professor at Seoul’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said the carrier visit was useful for political signaling, reassuring Seoul and training with South Korean troops, but probably did little to further deter North Korea.

“Carrier visits are certainly not going to do much — in fact, it could do the opposite — preventing Pyongyang from developing more nuclear weapons and delivery systems, as well as conventional capabilities,” he said.

Still, Richey added, it underscores that under Yoon, allies see closer military coordination and interoperability as the best way to deal with North Korea.

The possible role of some 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea has been questioned if a conflict erupted in Taiwan.

Donnelly said the questions were directed at policymakers above him, but said working with like-minded allies such as South Korea was a key part of the Navy’s efforts to maintain regional security and stability for more than seven years.

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Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Gerry Doyle

Our Standard: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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