US aircraft carrier arrives in South Korea for joint exercises

BUSAN, South Korea — The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan arrived in the South Korean port of Busan on Friday ahead of joint military exercises between the two countries aimed at demonstrating their strength against growing threats from North Korea.

The joint drills are the first with a US aircraft carrier in the region since 2017, when the US sent three aircraft carriers, including the Reagan, to naval exercises with South Korea in response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests.

Allies have revived their large-scale military exercises this year, which were scaled back or shelved in previous years to support diplomacy with Pyongyang or because of COVID-19, in response to North Korea’s resumption of large-scale weapons tests and the growing threat of nuclear conflicts with Seoul and Washington.

South Korea’s navy said its combined exercise with Battle Group Reagan was intended to boost the allies’ military readiness and “demonstrate the firm resolve of the Korea-US alliance for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”

The threat from North Korea is also expected to be central to the agenda when US Vice President Kamala Harris visits South Korea next week following the state funeral of slain former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo.

Reagan’s arrival in South Korea comes after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told a rubber-stamp parliament in Pyongyang this month that he would never give up the nuclear weapons and missiles he needs to counter US hostility.

North Korea also passed a new law confirming its status as a nuclear power and allowing for the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons in a variety of situations where the country or its leadership are threatened.

Sung Kim, the Biden administration’s special representative for North Korea, met with his South Korean counterpart Kim Gunn in Seoul on Thursday, where they expressed “serious concerns” about North Korea’s escalating nuclear doctrine, which is enshrined in a new law, South Korea’s foreign ministry said.

Diplomats reaffirmed the US commitment to defend South Korea with all its military capabilities, including nuclear power, in the event of a nuclear war. The allies also stuck to their assessment from months ago that North Korea was preparing to conduct its first nuclear test since 2017 and discussed “tough” countermeasures to such activity, the ministry said.

North Korea has ramped up weapons tests at a record pace in 2022, having launched more than 30 ballistic weapons since 2017, including its intercontinental ballistic missiles, as it exploits divisions in the UN Security Council that have worsened over Russia’s war on Ukraine.

While North Korea’s ICBMs garner much US attention as a potential threat to the American homeland, North Korea has also expanded its arsenal of nuclear-capable shorter-range missiles designed to evade South Korea’s missile defenses.

North Korea’s expanding arsenal and threats of preemptive nuclear strikes have raised concerns in South Korea about the reliability of the US “nuclear umbrella” that protects its allies in the event of war.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative who took office in May, has pledged to strengthen South Korea’s conventional missile capabilities and work with the Biden administration to develop more effective strategies to deter North Korean attacks.

Senior US and South Korean officials met in Washington this month to discuss the allies’ deterrence strategies and issued a statement asserting that “any (North Korean) nuclear attack will be met with an overwhelming and decisive response.” The statement said the United States reiterated “its ironclad and unwavering commitment to use all of its military capabilities, including nuclear (one),” to provide prolonged deterrence to South Korea.

North Korea has so far rejected calls from the US and South Korea to return to nuclear diplomacy, which has been stalled since 2019 amid disagreements over a US-led exchange of sanctions relief against the North and the North’s disarmament steps.

North Korea has harshly criticized Yoon for continuing military exercises with the United States and allowing South Korean civilian activists to balloon anti-Pyongyang propaganda flights and other “dirty waste” across the border, even claiming the items caused the COVID-19 outbreak. .

South Korean activists have continued to release balloons after North Korea warned of “deadly” retaliation last month, raising concerns that the North could respond with a weapons test or even cross-border incursions.

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, which handles inter-Korean affairs, asked the activists to stop for security reasons. Ministry spokesman Lee Hyo-jung also said Friday that South Korea is ready to respond harshly to any North Korean retaliation for the leaflets.

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Kim Tong-hyung reported from Seoul.