After carrying out bombing drills over the Korean peninsula on Monday following North Korea’s firing of an intermediate-range missile over the Japanese island of Hokkaido, US and South Korean forces are planning to continue their displays of military might early next month, according to a report from Yonhap, the South Korean news agency. However, in a move that is sure to provoke a barrage of threats from North Korea, the US is reportedly sending a nuclear-armed aircraft carrier to the waters off the Korean peninsula, where it will take part in an upcoming round of military drills.
Earlier this year, the US sent three aircraft carriers to waters near North Korea in an unprecedented show of force. However, it's unclear if any of those carriers are still positioned so closely to the peninsula. Here's the latest map of US naval strike groups, which was compiled by Stratfor using publicly-available information. Deployments considered "sensitive" would not be included on this map.
As Yonhap reports, the aircraft carrier will participate in a series of naval drills with South Korean forces. Yonhap didn’t reveal the name of the carrier. South Korea and the US will also conduct a “combined missile alert drill” in late September or early October, for which they will be joined by Japan, Yonhap said, citing a source in South Korea’s Ministry of Defense. The US is also expected to once again send B-1B strategic bombers stationed in Guam to Korea later this month in a warning to the North.
However, given UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s revelation that the UN Security Council may have reached the limits of its ability to economically pressure the isolated country, it’s understandable that the US would want to signal an escalation in its flexing of military muscle, to show. After all, the US needs to maintain the illusion that “military options” remain on the table. Even though, as former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon confirmed in an interview before he was ousted from the West Wing, there aren’t any options available to the US that wouldn’t lead to millions of civilian deaths in Seoul from conventional weapons fire.
US, Japanese and South Korean officials believe North Korea is “in the final stages” of developing a long-range ballistic missile that would be able to reliably strike the Continental US. The North believes obtaining such a weapon is essential to the regime's survival, but the prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea – which is already, in a sense, a reality – has horrified the international community.
According to Yonhap, the South Korean defense ministry expects the North to soon carry out more missile tests, as well as an expected seventh nuclear test.
To be sure, news of the aircraft carrier being sent to the waters around the Korean peninsula may remind readers of President Donald Trump’s promise to send a strike force of nuclear-armed submarines to the waters of the peninsula earlier this year, only for media reports to confirm that the submarines were, in fact, headed in the other direction.
Assuming the carrier is, in fact, headed to its reported post, such an act would be interpreted as an unprecedented provocation by Kim Jong Un and his generals, and likely demand a response in kind.