Asia Pacific

Japan-based U.S. aircraft carrier wraps up joint drills with South Korean Navy

by Alastair Wanklyn

Staff Writer

The USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier was due Sunday to call at Busan, South Korea, after almost a week of maneuvers with South Korea’s navy.

The port call represents a soft-power follow-up after six days of drills that modeled a military response to North Korean maritime infiltration and attack.

The Reagan, the only forward-deployed U.S. aircraft carrier, is based in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. It was joined in the drills by four other U.S. warships.

The exercise aimed to demonstrate Washington and Seoul’s joint commitment to protecting South Korea from North Korean threats, said Gen. Leem Ho-young, deputy commander of South Korea’s Combined Forces Command.

The two nations “have the ability to conduct powerful combined operations and maintain full readiness to respond to any provocation either from the waters, air, or ground,” he said in a statement released Thursday. “By conducting this exercise together, the alliance is becoming stronger.”

The drills demonstrated a concept South Korea has dubbed Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation, or the use of shipborne missiles and other armaments to strike targets on land in a sudden hammer-blow, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency on Friday quoted the defense ministry as saying.

Yonhap said the KMPR plan is aimed at “decimating parts of Pyongyang, and envisions launching pre-emptive attacks on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the communist regime’s military leadership if signs of imminent use of nuclear weapons are detected.”

While such plans may play well among South Koreans exhausted by near-weekly threats from the North and those that fear it may use its weapons as casually as it fires off rhetoric, some analysts say blitzing Pyongyang would bring disaster for South Korea.

They say the city of Seoul, only 40 km from the border, is largely indefensible from attack by artillery and short-range rockets.

Decapitation would be “not only immature but highly dangerous,” said disarmament expert Tariq Rauf of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Rauf said the policy may provoke the North to build up its nuclear arsenal, as was seen historically in the standoffs between the U.S. and Soviet Union, and India and Pakistan.

He called Seoul’s policy “just as suicidal and irrational” as North Korea’s threats to attack the U.S.

The Reagan was accompanied in last week’s exercises by the guided missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville and guided missile destroyers USS Barry, USS John S. McCain and USS Curtis Wilbur.

Radar and missile systems aboard the four ships comprise part of the world’s most advanced anti-ballistic missile defense shield. The Japan-based 7th Fleet is believed to have its systems aimed toward North Korea on a round-the-clock basis.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Strategic Command said it detected a failed launch from North Korea of an intermediate-range missile just after midday Saturday, Korea time.

It said the missile was probably a Musudan, which can hit targets — potentially with a nuclear warhead — more than 3,000 kilometers from North Korea.

North Korea test-fired six Musudans between April and June this year.

Only one missile launch was thought to have succeeded. However, that rocket exited the atmosphere and analysts said it demonstrated Pyongyang’s growing ability to attack far from its own shores.