The Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group will arrive in South Korea on Friday in preparation for large-scale joint naval exercises with Seoul amid concerns mount over North Korea’s likely resumption of nuclear weapons testing, according to local reports.
“By conducting combined drills, the navies of the two countries plan to strengthen their military readiness and demonstrate the firm resolve of the South Korea-U.S. alliance for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” the Republic of Korea Navy said in a statement.
USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) and other American vessels will make a port stop in Busan in southeastern Korea, American officials confirmed to USNI News on Monday.
The joint naval exercise next month will be the largest in five years and comes a few weeks after the nations’ ground and air forces concluded their most extensive Ulchi Freedom Shield exercise across the Korean Peninsula. The military drills are the most exetnsive since 2017, when tensions with Pyongyang over nuclear weapons testing were high as Washington dispatched three carrier strike groups to the waters off the peninsula.
At the Pentagon on Friday, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks met with Republic of Korea Vice Minister of National Defense Shin Beomchul to reaffirm the importance of the U.S.-ROK Alliance, according to a DoD news release. The meeting came as the administration changed in Seoul, with new priorities for defense spending, relations with North Korea and the security on the peninsula.
This increased show of allied military strength and cooperation comes in the wake of North Korea’s parliament this month authorizing the preemptive use of nuclear weapons to defend the regime if it feels its survival threatened.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un followed the parliamentary vote up with a speech declaring Pyongyang would never give up its nuclear weapons. He ruled out any negotiations with Washington and Seoul over denuclearization of the peninsula.
Earlier this year, Pyongyang test fired an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the United States, pulling itself further away from steps it took to stop nuclear weapons testing and long-range missile testing following a 2018 summit meeting between Kim and former President Donald Trump in Singapore. In return, Trump scaled back or paused major joint exercises like Ulchi Freedom Shield.
Pyongyang’s last nuclear weapons test took place in 2017.
The joint U.S.-ROK naval exercises closely followed the biennial Rim of the Pacific 2022 exercise, in which more than 20 other nations drills near Hawaii and California earlier this summer. In addition to ships, Seoul sent fixed winged aircraft to participate.
What was different about this year’s Ulchi Freedom Shield was not only its scale over 11 days, but also having Korean Gen. Ahn Byung-Seek, deputy commander the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command, lead the exercise. This was part of the allies’ long-range plan to transition wartime operational control from the United States to Korea.
Seoul also plans to invest in building a 30,000-ton light aircraft carrier. In July, USNI News reported that the new administration is considering buying 20 new F-35A Block 4 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters for its air force, rather than buying the carrier variant.
If the buy goes through, starting in 2023 and ending in 2028, Seoul will have 60 F-35s in its air force’s inventory.