Seoul, South Korea – A US Navy aircraft carrier strike group is moving into waters off the Korean Peninsula as tensions flare after a flurry of North Korean missile launches over the past two weeks, South Korean security officials say.
South Korea’s National Security Council (NSC) held an emergency meeting on Thursday after North Korea fired two more short-range ballistic missiles, the sixth such launch in 12 days, the country’s presidential office said in a statement.
The NSC warned that provocations by North Korea would be met with a stronger response, as demonstrated by the deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its strike group to the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan, following Pyongyang’s launch of an intermediate-range missile. ballistic missile (IRBM) that flew over Japan on Tuesday.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff also said Wednesday that a US aircraft carrier strike group would be relocated to the Sea of Japan, which it characterized as a “highly unusual” move meant to “demonstrate the resolute will of the SK-US alliance to respond decisively to any provocation or threat from side of North Korea.
Asked about South Korea’s statement on the Reagan move, a 7th Fleet spokesman told CNN: “The Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group is currently operating in the Sea of Japan. The Navy said it does not comment on future operations.
South Korea’s statement about the movement of a US Navy strike group has drawn a harsh response from Pyongyang.
“The DPRK observes how the US poses a serious threat to the stability of the situation on and around the Korean Peninsula by deploying a carrier task force in the waters off the Korean Peninsula,” the North Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement. in the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
Thursday’s missile launch by Pyongyang is the 24th such test this year, including ballistic and cruise missiles – the highest annual number since Kim Jong-un took power in 2012.
It followed closely on the heels of the isolated country’s highly provocative launch on Tuesday, when North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan without warning – its first in five years – prompting Tokyo to call on residents in the North to take cover.
The United States and South Korea responded with missile launches and drills around the Korean Peninsula on Tuesday and Wednesday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned on Wednesday during his trip to South America that if North Korea continues “down this path” of provocations, “it will only increase condemnation, increase isolation and increase the actions that are being taken in response to their actions.”
Last month, the US, Japanese and South Korean navies conducted joint anti-submarine drills in international waters off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula to improve the ability to respond to threats from North Korean submarines.
According to the South Korean Navy, the Reagan Carrier Strike Group as well as the destroyers of South Korea and Japan were involved in this joint exercise.
The US accuses Russia and China of encouraging Pyongyang
The latest North Korean launch came hours after a Security Council briefing at United Nations headquarters in New York on its weapons program.
In a speech to the council, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield accused Russia and China, without naming them, of enabling North Korea.
North Korea “enjoyed blanket protection from two members of this council. These two members tried their best to justify the DPRK’s repeated provocations and blocked every attempt to update the sanctions regime,” she said.
Referring to Russia and China, Thomas-Greenfield said: “The two permanent members of the Security Council have allowed (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un to continue these ‘provocations.’
However, China countered that it is Washington that is raising tensions.
“The United States has recently been strengthening its military alliances in the Asia-Pacific region and intensifying the risk of military confrontation on the nuclear issue,” China’s deputy UN ambassador Geng Shuang said during the Security Council meeting.
The US “is annoying the regional security environment,” he added.
Russia also blamed the US.
“It is clear that Pyongyang’s missile launch was a response to short-sighted confrontational US military activities,” said Russia’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Anna Evstigneeva.
More North Korean testing is expected
Experts have warned that recent North Korean tests suggest an even greater escalation of weapons testing could be on the horizon.
“North Korea will continue to conduct missile tests until the current round of modernization is completed,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told CNN earlier this week.
A nuclear test could come “at any time,” he added.
South Korean and US officials have warned since May that North Korea may be preparing for a nuclear test, with satellite images showing activity at its underground nuclear test site.
If North Korea conducts the test, it would be the country’s seventh underground nuclear test and the first in nearly five years.