SEOUL — A U.S. Navy strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier was making its way toward the Korean Peninsula on Sunday "to maintain readiness" as Kim Jong Un's regime in North Korea prepared to mark key anniversaries in the coming weeks.
Analysts expect the recent barrage of missile launches to continue, and activities around the country's known nuclear test site have raised concerns that Pyongyang may be preparing for a sixth nuclear test.
Over the weekend, North Korea said that it was not afraid of military strikes like those the United States launched on Syria last week, saying it could defend itself with its "tremendous military muscle with a nuclear force."
In this atmosphere, the Carl Vinson strike group, which includes a carrier air wing and two guided-missile destroyers, was ordered to travel to the “Western Pacific.” When the group left Singapore on Saturday, it was bound for Australia before receiving the new orders.
“The U.S. Pacific Command ordered the Carl Vinson Strike Group north as a prudent measure to maintain readiness and presence in the Western Pacific,” said Dave Benham, a spokesman for the Pacific Command.
“The number one threat in the region continues to North Korea, due to its reckless, irresponsible and destabilizing program of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability,” he said, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency.
The Vinson group participated in joint drills with the South Korean military last month to prepare for a sudden change on the peninsula — including the collapse of the North Korean regime or an invasion.
North Korea has been testing medium-range missiles over recent months, and Kim said in January that North Korea had “entered the final stage of preparation for a test-launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile” capable of hitting the mainland United States. In response, President Trump tweeted: “It won’t happen!”
In a 20-minute phone call Saturday, Trump told South Korea’s acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, that he had “in-depth discussions about North Korea’s serious nuclear problems and how to respond to them” during his summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week, according to the South Korean leader’s office.
Trump’s vow to act alone if China does not rein in North Korea, combined with the U.S. president’s sudden decision to launch airstrikes on Syria, has some analysts speculating that North Korea could be next.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a visit to Seoul last month that "all options are on the table," including military options. U.S. administrations have long ruled out even pinprick strikes on North Korean nuclear sites or missile targets because of the potential for catastrophic damage in South Korea.
The North has conventional artillery massed on its side of the demilitarized zone that bisects the Korean Peninsula, giving it the capacity to inflict serious damage on Greater Seoul, a metropolitan area of 20 million people just 30 miles south of the DMZ.
A statement from North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, published Sunday, said that the attack on Syria was “absolutely unpardonable as it was an undisguised act of aggression against a sovereign state.”
North Korea will not be “frightened” by the U.S. strike on Syria, according to a statement published by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. The strikes showed why North Korea needed nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, the statement said. “We will bolster up in every way our capability for self-defense to cope with the U.S. evermore reckless moves for a war and defend ourselves with our own force,” it said.