In a show of massive military might in and around the Korean peninsula, the Trump administration is sending a powerful warning to the erratic – and some would say lunatic – regime of Kim Jong-un in North Korea: Back off.
Even as the Republic of South Korea leadership remains roiled after the ouster of President Park Geun-hye in a corruption scandal that has rocked the country, the U.S. military and ROK army and navy are not just continuing with war games begun on March 1, but they are openly confrontational.
The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson began plying the waters off South Korea Tuesday, according to a report by two Reuters reporters on board. To sharpen the point, F-18 Super Hornets are roaring off the flight deck.
Among the joint forces taking part in the exercise involving 300,000 ROK and almost 20,000 U.S. troops are Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and members of Delta Force. Fox News is saying Tuesday that the Pentagon is denying multiple reports on Monday – based on a story from Yonhap News Agency -- that members of SEAL Team 6, which killed Osama Bin Laden, would also be involved and would be engaged in training aimed at “decapitating” North Korea’s leadership.
Last week, in an apparent response to the war games, North Korea fired four antiballistic missiles that landed in the Sea of Japan, some as close as 190 miles from the coast. The BBC says that’s the third time it has tested missiles since last August.
But the answer back to Pyongyang goes beyond continuing with the joint exercises.
The U.S. is positioning at least two THAAD anti-missile systems in South Korea, a move that led Beijing, which worries about the ability of the system’s radar to penetrate past North Korea and deep into China, to propose a moratorium on North Korea’s missile program in exchange for a termination of the war games. That proposal was rejected by Washington.
In addition, the U.S. is permanently placing a Gray Eagle attack-drone unit at Kunsan Air Base on the west coast of South Korea, Stars and Stripes reports. The Gray Eagle is an upgrade of the Predator and is used for surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting. It can stay airborne for up to 25 hours, the website of its maker, General Atomics, says and can carry as many as four Hellfire air-to-surface missiles.
Stars and Stripes quoted an unnamed South Korean military official as saying, “In case of a war on the Korean Peninsula, the unmanned aircraft could infiltrate the skies of North Korea and make a precision strike on the war command and other major military facilities.”
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is set to visit Seoul and meet with the acting president, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn. And in early April, China President Xi Jinping is scheduled to confer with Donald Trump at a two-day summit at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. North Korea is certain to be on the agenda of both meetings, but since China is Pyongyang’s main sponsor, the Xi visit is likely to be the most unnerving to the unpredictable Kim Jong-un.
Meantime, in what the South China Morning Post calls Japan’s “biggest show of naval force” since World War II, its helicopter carrier Izumo will cruise through the disputed waters of the South China Sea starting in May and will conduct joint maneuvers with U.S. and Indian naval forces in the Indian Ocean in July.
Japan is also buying new F-35s, which may eventually fly off the two-year-old Izumo.
South Korean elections to replace disgraced President Park will also be held in May, and the favorite candidate is a liberal, Moon Jae-in, who was defeated by Park in 2012. Moon is said to be more open to reducing tensions with North Korea. But on Tuesday he cautioned China about the economic pressure it is imposing on South Korea, which some see as retaliation for deploying the THAAD anti-missile systems.
Correction: The story has been corrected. An earlier version stated that the USS Carl Vinson is equipped with F-35 aircraft, but the F-35 is not scheduled for deployment on U.S. aircraft carriers for several more years.