US aircraft carrier arrives in South Korea, warns North Korea

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BUSAN, South Korea (Reuters) – A U.S. aircraft carrier arrived in South Korea for the first time in about four years on Friday, preparing to join other warships in a show of force aimed at sending a message to North Korea.

The USS Ronald Reagan and its accompanying strike group ships docked at a naval base in the southern port city of Busan.

Its arrival marks the most significant deployment under a new U.S. effort to deploy more “strategic assets” in the region to deter North Korea.

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Rear Admiral Michael Donnelly, commander of the strike group, told reporters on board that the visit had been planned for a long time to build relationships with South Korean allies and promote interoperability between the two navies.

When asked about any signal to North Korea, he said: “We are leaving a message to the diplomats,” but added that the joint exercises were designed to ensure that allies can respond to threats anytime, anywhere.

“This is our chance to practice tactics and fight,” Donnelly said.

South Korean President Yoon Se-yeol has pushed for more joint drills and other displays of military power as a warning to North Korea.

Observers say Pyongyang also appears to be preparing to resume nuclear tests for the first time since 2017.

North Korea denounced previous U.S. military deployments and joint exercises as a rehearsal for war and proof of Washington and Seoul’s hostile policies.

Last week, the U.S. 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,” noting the carrier’s visit was “clear proof of this U.S. commitment.”

In announcing the visit, however, the U.S. Navy made no mention of North Korea, only “regular port visits,” and emphasized that crew members traveling to Busan volunteered at orphanages and explored the K-pop music scene.

Officials declined to provide details of the upcoming joint exercise, but said the carrier would remain in port for “a few days” while its crew visited Busan. A few hours after the ship docked, the crew lined up to be tested for COVID-19 before being sent to the city.

One crew member, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said they were looking forward to the rest, but geopolitical tensions persisted.

“You never really forget what we’re here for,” the crew told Reuters.

It was the first visit by a U.S. aircraft carrier to South Korea since 2018. That year, the allies scaled back many joint military activities in diplomatic efforts to engage North Korea, but those talks have stalled, and Pyongyang unveiled updated laws this month that mandate its first use of nuclear strikes to protect its rights.

The possible role of some 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea has been questioned if a conflict erupted in Taiwan.

Donnelly said the questions were directed at policymakers above him, but said working with like-minded allies such as South Korea was a key part of the U.S. Navy’s efforts to maintain regional security and stability for more than seven years.

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Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Gerry Doyle

Our Standard: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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