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USS Ronald Reagan to arrive in Busan this week

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The USS Ronald Reagan / Yonhap
The USS Ronald Reagan / Yonhap

Supercarrier set for drills in South Korean waters in response to Pyongyang's preemptive nuclear law

By Jung Min-ho

The USS Ronald Reagan, the U.S. Navy's nuclear-powered supercarrier, will arrive at the southeastern port city of Busan later this week for joint military drills with South Korea amid mounting nuclear threats from North Korea.

According to military sources Sunday, the Nimitz-class supercarrier will take part in combined exercises with the Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy in the East Sea this month for the first time since 2017, when Pyongyang conducted its sixth nuclear weapons test.

The move comes immediately after the two allies issued a joint statement Friday (local time), after holding a meeting in Washington to denounce the North for passing a law earlier this month to grant its military the right to use nuclear weapons preemptively. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un also called the nation's nuclear status "irreversible," leaving no room for negotiation on the issue.

In that statement, the U.S. reaffirmed its "ironclad and unwavering" commitment to provide deterrence for South Korea, which has long relied on the U.S.' nuclear umbrella against the North's evolving nuclear and missile threats.

"The United States committed to strengthen coordination with the ROK to continue to deploy and exercise strategic assets in the region in a timely and effective manner to deter and respond to the DPRK and enhance regional security," the statement reads, referring to North Korea by an abbreviation of its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "They highlighted the combined training of fifth-generation F-35A fighter jets in July and the upcoming deployment of the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group in the region as a clear demonstration of such U.S. commitment."

The U.S. also warned that a North Korean nuclear attack would be met with an overwhelming and decisive response. With the North believed to have already completed preparation for its seventh nuclear weapons test, many worry that the expected provocation may increase tensions on the Korean Peninsula to dangerous levels and lead to a military confrontation.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un / Yonhap
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un / Yonhap

According to the U.S. Navy, the USS Ronald Reagan and its strike group, including USS Chancellorsville, a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser, and guided-missile destroyers, departed from its home port in Japan's Yokosuka on Sept. 12.

Details of the planned military exercise in South Korean waters remain undisclosed. When the Reagan participated in the joint drills with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in May, their program included a gunnery exercise, electronic warfare exercise and helicopter deck landing qualifications.

On Sept. 15, the U.S. government released the photos of Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, best known for its ability to control close air strikes, under joint drills with the ROK Marine Corps in Gangwon Province. Only two weeks ago, the two allies wrapped up Ulchi Freedom Shield, their largest combined military exercises since 2017.

All this suggests that chances of achieving the North's denuclearization through talks, are now very close to zero, if not already there, and the two sides are heading toward nuclear brinkmanship, according to Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, a think tank.

"Realistically, the U.S. has two options now. The first is to offer South Korea assurance that, if it is attacked by North Korea's nuclear weapons, the U.S. will respond with its own nuclear weapons, which will make North Korean leaders think carefully about their military moves," Cheong told The Korea Times. "The other option is to support ― secretly if possible ― South Korea's development of nuclear weapons … I think the balance of power collapsed in 2017 when the North tested a hydrogen bomb. The time has arrived for South Korean leaders to ponder whether they can continue to rely on the U.S. for protection."

Jung Min-ho

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