For the first time in nearly four years, a US aircraft carrier arrived in South Korea on Friday, joining other military boats in a show of force intended to send a message to North Korea.
The USS Ronald Reagan and ships from its accompanying strike group docked at a naval base in the southern port city of Busan.
Its arrival marks the most significant deployment yet under a new push to have more U.S. “strategic assets” operate in the area to deter North Korea.
Strike group commander Rear Admiral Michael Donnelly told reporters aboard the ship that the visit had been long planned and was designed to build relations with South Korean allies and boost interoperability between the navies.
“We are leaving messaging to diplomats,” he said, when asked about any signal to North Korea, but added that joint drills were designed to ensure the allies were able to respond to threats anywhere at any time.
“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 power as a warning to North Korea, which this year conducted a record number of missile tests after talks failed to persuade it to end its nuclear weapons and missile development.
Observers say Pyongyang also appears to be preparing to resume nuclear testing for the first time since 2017.
North Korea has denounced previous U.S. military deployments and joint drills as rehearsals for war and proof of hostile policies by Washington and Seoul.
Last week the United States vowed to “continue to deploy and exercise strategic assets in the region in a timely and effective manner to deter and respond to (North Korea) and enhance regional security,” and pointed to the carrier’s visit as “as a clear demonstration of such U.S. commitment.”
In announcing the visit, however, the U.S. Navy made no mention of North Korea, referring only to a “regularly scheduled port visit” and emphasising crew members visiting Busan to volunteer at orphanages and explore the K-pop music scene.
Officials declined to provide details of the upcoming joint drills, but said the carrier would be in port for “several days” while its crew visited Busan. Just hours after the ship docked, long lines of crewmembers formed as they took COVID-19 tests before being bused into the city.
One crew member, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said that they were looking forward to a break but that the geopolitical tensions were a constant presence.
“You can’t ever really forget what we’re all here for,” the crew member told Reuters.
The visit is the first to South Korea by an American aircraft carrier since 2018. That year, the allies scaled back many of their joint military activities amid diplomatic efforts to engage with North Korea, but those talks have since stalled, and Pyongyang this month unveiled an updated law codifying its right to conduct first-use nuclear strikes to protect itself.
Questions have risen over the role the roughly 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea might play if conflict erupts over Taiwan.
Donnelly said such questions are for policymakers above him, but said that operating with like-minded allies such as South Korea is a key part of the U.S. Navy’s efforts to maintain the regional security and stability that has existed for more than seven decades.