The pace of pressure to throttle North Korea’s nuclear and missile program is intensifying, with military planning for exercises on land and sea in which the North Korean leadership is the immediate target.
The view among defense strategists in Seoul and Washington is that a fast strike against top headquarters, communication centers and routes of escape would lead to chaos and collapse. “Decapitation” is the primary goal as North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un orders more missile tests and threatens a sixth nuclear test.
And “decapitation” was the name of the game this week, as U.S. and South Korean special forces worked on “surgical strikes” near the West or Yellow Sea southwest of Seoul. It’s also the game the South Korean army, air force, navy and marines will be playing for the next two weeks to hone their skills at rapid response to an enemy attack.
VIEW FROM THE DECK
On the Yellow Sea, NK News saw warplanes taking off and landing on the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan – as the U.S. and South Korea challenged China in the biggest naval exercise since the sinking of the South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan that killed 46 sailors in March 2010.
“Decapitation” is the primary goal
At the forefront of the U.S.-Korea joint exercise is the Ronald Reagan, the flagship of a group that also includes half a dozen cruisers and destroyers, churned the waters of the Yellow Sea for a week.
The activity comes in defiance of repeated urgings from China to stay out of what the Chinese view as within their sphere of influence – if not their territorial waters.
Unsurprisingly, the war games elicited a typically harsh response from North Korea.
“The main purpose of the naval maneuver staged by the U.S. and its vassal forces is to round off the system for preemptive attack” and to “ignite a war at any cost,” said Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency.
“Brass hats of the Command of the U.S. imperialist aggression forces in south Korea were watching aboard an aircraft carrier,” KCNA reported, as always not capitalizing the letter “s” in South Korea. The “second Korean war,” it warned, could erupt “any moment.”
Not unexpectedly, China didn’t like the exercises either, but its defense ministry came out with a more measured response when asked about them. South Korea and the U.S. “should remain calm and self-controlled,” as reported on the ministry’s social media service, according to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency.
Rear Admiral Charles Williams, commander of the Ronald Reagan strike group, had his own tough words about the U.S. and South Korean show of force.
“Our alliance was forged in battle,” he said. “Our continuous visits to Korea throughout my own career illustrate the ironclad commitment to our alliance”. It was a commitment, he said, that was “forged in the steel ships you see here today.”
Fighting words – or promotional posturing? Either way, the war games reflect rising tensions as South Korean leaders talk about “striking first” against North Korea – and voices are heard calling for the South to consider making its own nuclear weapons for “defense” against North Korea’s nukes.
THE DEBATE HEATS UP
The U.S. has opposed the proliferation of nuclear weapons to South Korea, but right-leaning politicos in Seoul resent the constraints imposed by Washington.
Unsurprisingly, the war games elicited a harsh response from North Korea
The debate rages amid uncertainty about the future of both U.S. and Korean leaderships, with the U.S. presidential election coming up on November 8 and South Korea’s hawkish President Park Geun-hye embroiled in a corruption scandal.
Politics, though, aren’t slowing the pace of war games. Washington and Seoul have scaled up exercises, said Leif-Eric Easley, research fellow at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies, “in contrast to previous periods of lower trust that witnessed disagreements over the scheduling of exercises and how to make clear their importance to domestic and international audiences.”
Admiral Williams and Rear Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. naval forces in Korea, leaves speculation about a “first strike” to higher-ups in the Pentagon and the White House. But defiance of China in displays ranging from flyovers by B-1 supersonic bombers to shoot-outs featuring the entire panoply of U.S. and South Korean strength certainly send a strong message.
“We are ready to ‘Fight Tonight’ and defend this nation,” said Cooper, standing beside Williams on the pier after the strike group arrived at the southeastern port of Busan.
“The USS Ronald Reagan and the ships and aircraft of the U.S. Navy’s only forward deployed strike group are here to send a clear signal of the strength of our alliance and our resolve to protect the ROK from unprovoked acts of aggression.”
That signal is an escalation of 2010, when the U.S. was set to send the aircraft carrier George Washington into the Yellow Sea in a time of outrage over the sinking of the South Korean corvette the Cheonan with the loss of 46 sailors’ lives. As tensions rose to boiling point, the George Washington was ordered instead to lead its strike force into the Sea of Japan.
South Korean defense officials were more outspoken than their American counterparts: “Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation” was the name they gave to the exercise
IF YOU’VE GOT, FLAUNT IT
Admiral Williams showed off the threat to correspondents flown out to the Ronald Reagan.
“You get to see up close and personal the awesome power that the aircraft carrier and strike group brings to the U.S. Navy,” he told us.
The sight of F18 Hornets and observation aircraft whooshing off and back onto the deck of the Ronald Reagan was certainly impressive, even frightening at times, as the planes swept in and out only a few feet from your correspondent. The drama of a warplane being catapulted off the deck is matched only by that of a plane coming in for landing – “recovered” as it hooks onto one of three heavy-duty wires across the deck.
About one in ten, a sailor tells NK News, “misses” – and roars back into the sky to circle around and try again. While on the carrier there was one “miss” among 15 “recoveries.”
But where were the planes going, how close did they get to perceived “enemies,” what were they doing up there and why?
South Korean defense officials were more outspoken than their American counterparts: “Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation” was the name they gave to the exercise otherwise known as “Invincible Spirit.”
“The ‘Invincible Spirit’ exercise has put a bigger focus on striking North Korea’s key nuclear and missile facilities,” one official was quoted as saying. “The change comes after the North’s fifth nuclear test last month”
The show was “aimed at decimating parts of Pyongyang,” defense officials told Yonhap, the South Korean news agency. Indeed, as North Korea’s KCNA had reported, Yonhap said “pre-emptive bombing attacks” were on the agenda.
The war games, said a South Korean official, would target Kim Jong-un “and the country’s military leadership if signs of imminent use of nuclear weapons are detected.”
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Featured Image: USS Ronald Reagan by DVIDSHUB on 2011-03-31 09:54:31