The U.S. military is deploying a navy strike group towards the Korean peninsula amid rumors Washington may be considering the reintroduction of tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea or the assassination of Kim Jong Un, it emerged on Sunday.
The Carl Vinson Strike Group, which comprises a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, two guided-missile destroyers and a guided-missile cruiser, was originally scheduled to call on Australia this week, but is now on its way to the Korean peninsula from Singapore.
“U.S. Pacific Command ordered the Carl Vinson Strike Group north as a prudent measure to maintain readiness and presence in the western Pacific,” Commander Dave Benham, a spokesperson at the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) said on Sunday.
“The number one threat in the region continues to be North Korea, due to its reckless, irresponsible and destabilizing program of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability,” the spokesperson continued, amid fears in some quarters that Pyongyang may soon conduct a sixth nuclear test or further missile drills.
News of the deployment comes following leaks to NBC that suggest – following a recent and accelerated policy review – the National Security Council is considering hardline new options against North Korea, such as the re-deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in South Korean territory or the potential assassination of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.
Without considering those options North Korea previously described drills involving the Carl Vinson as being designed for “pre-emptive strikes,” meaning that against the backdrop of Friday’s U.S. cruise missile attacks in Syria – which Pyongyang described as “unforgivable” – the deployment risks increasing tensions.
“This is a very unfortunate development as it may provoke North Korea to take some harsh reaction,” said Professor Georgy Toloraya, a former Russian diplomat with decades of experience on the peninsula.
“So far they abstained from major provocation…(conducting) no ICBM launch nor nuclear test before the conclusion of (Trump’s) policy review,” he continued. “They may now do so as they see what happened in Syria and will want to send a strong message to Trump.”
Another observer said the U.S. deployment was likely linked to the prospects of impending nuclear or ICBM tests in the North.
“The DPRK has said that it will soon launch an ICBM,” said Tristan Webb, a senior NK Pro analyst. “It’s possible that a launch (or nuclear test) will be timed to coincide with the forthcoming (April 15) anniversary.
“(Therefore) the Carl Vinson’s diversion may be connected with this timing,” he said. “If so, the next fortnight will be key.”
Following an apparent lack of progress on North Korea at a Presidential summit last week between Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping – and warnings that Washington is prepared to “solve North Korea” alone – another observer said fears over U.S. policy direction might now be increasing in Beijing.
“The deployment of the Carl Vinson Strike Group so soon after the U.S. President’s decision to strike the Syrian airbase will raise the stakes for Xi, who is said to have agreed in principle to do more about North Korea’s evolving nuclear strike capability,” said Dr. John Hemmings, Director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society.
“The real question uppermost in the minds of U.S. allies and enemies alike in the region is whether the deployment indicates possible military action from an unpredictable President or increased psychological pressure from a deal-maker,” he added.
But notably it has been less than “one month since the Carl Vinson strike group rehearsed bombing raids on the DPRK during U.S.-ROK military exercises,” said Webb, the NK Pro analyst, meaning the crew are “presumably ready for a similar order (to Syria) against the DPRK.”
However, strikes similar to those seen on Friday could be legally questionable, Webb added.
“Such an attack against the DPRK would not only be a severe violation of the UN Charter’s prohibition on the unilateral use of force, it also risks devastating counter-strikes from the DPRK.”
The UN Charter forbids all use of force taken without the approval of the Security Council, unless in self-defense, though states are divided on what the latter should allow.
Main picture: Wikimedia Commons
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