By Josh Smith
BUSAN, South Korea (Reuters) – A U.S. aircraft carrier arrived in South Korea for the first time in about four years on Friday, intending to join other military ships in a show of force intended to send a message to North send to Korea.
USS Ronald Reagan and ships of the attack companion group docked at a naval base in the southern port city of Busan ahead of joint exercises with South Korean forces.
Its arrival marks the most significant commitment to date under a new impetus to operate more US “strategic assets” in the area to deter North Korea.
Commander of the assault group, Vice Admiral Michael Donnelly, told reporters aboard the ship that the visit was intended to build allied relations and increase interoperability between navies.
“We are leaving the messaging to diplomats,” he said, when asked about a signal to North Korea, but added that joint exercises would ensure that the allies could respond to all threats.
“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 might as a warning to North Korea, which has conducted a record number of missile tests this year and appears to be preparing to launch for the first time since 2017.
North Korea has denounced past US military deployment and joint exercises as rehearsals for war and evidence of hostile policies by Washington and Seoul. The exercises have also sparked protests from peace activists who say they are heightening regional tensions.
Last week, the United States said the airline’s visit was a “clear demonstration” of its commitment to deploy and exercise strategic assets to deter Pyongyang and improve regional security.
However, in announcing the visit, the US Navy made no mention of North Korea, only referring to a “regularly scheduled port visit” and highlighting crew members who visited Busan to volunteer at orphanages and explore the K-pop music scene.
Officials declined to give details of upcoming joint exercises, but said the carrier would be in port for “several days”. Just hours after the ship docked, long lines of crew members formed as they took COVID-19 tests before being taken to the city by bus.
A crew member, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said they were looking forward to a break, but geopolitical tensions were constant.
“You can never really forget what we are all here for,” the crew member told Reuters.
The visit is the first visit to South Korea by a US aircraft carrier since 2018. Many exercises have since been scaled back or canceled due to diplomatic efforts with North Korea or because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The courier’s visit is useful for political signaling, Seoul’s reassurance and training with South Korean troops, but is unlikely to deter North Korea further, said Mason Richey, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
“A visit to a transport group certainly doesn’t do much — in fact, it probably does the opposite — to discourage Pyongyang from developing more nuclear weapons and delivery systems, as well as conventional capabilities,” he said.
It nonetheless underscores that under Yoon, the Allies see closer military coordination and interoperability as the best way to deal with North Korea, Richey added.
Questions have been raised about the role the approximately 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea could play if conflict erupts over Taiwan.
Donnelly said such questions are above him for policymakers, but said working with like-minded allies like South Korea is an important part of the US Navy’s effort to maintain regional security and stability that has existed for more than seven decades.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; editing by Lincoln Feast and Gerry Doyle)