|USS Carl Vinson in Korean Waters.|
Even as the Republic of South Korea leadership remains roiled after the ouster of President Park Geun-hye in a corruption scandal that has rocked the country, the U.S. military and ROK army and navy are not just continuing with war games begun on March 1, but they are openly confrontational.
The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson began plying the waters off South Korea today, according to a report by two Reuters reporters on board. To sharpen the point, F-35 Joint Strike Fighters – the $100 million jets that are the new centerpiece of American air power – are taking off from the flight deck.
Among the joint forces taking part in the exercise involving 300,000 ROK and almost 20,000 U.S. troops, are Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and members of Delta Force. Fox News is saying today that the Pentagon is denying multiple reports on Monday – based on a story from Yonhap News Agency -- that members of SEAL Team 6, which took out Osama Bin Laden, would also be involved and would be engaged in training aimed at “decapitating” North Korea’s leadership.
Last week, in an apparent response to the war games, North Korea fired four antiballistic missiles that landed in the Sea of Japan, some as close as 190 miles from the coast. The BBC says that’s the third time it has tested missiles since last August. But the answer back to Pyongyang goes beyond continuing with the joint exercises.
The U.S. is positioning at least two THAAD anti-missile systems in South Korea, a move that led Beijing, which worries about the ability of the system’s radar to penetrate past North Korea and deep into China, to propose a moratorium on North Korea’s missile program in exchange for a termination of the war games. That proposal was rejected by Washington.
Stars and Stripes quoted an unnamed South Korean military official as saying, “In case of a war on the Korean Peninsula, the unmanned aircraft could infiltrate the skies of North Korea and make a precision strike on the war command and other major military facilities.”
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is set to visit Seoul and meet with the acting president, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn. And in early April, China President Xi Jinping is scheduled to confer with Donald Trump at a two-day summit at the President’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. North Korea is certain to be on the agenda of both meetings, but since China is Pyongyang’s main sponsor, the Xi visit is likely to be the most unnerving to the unpredictable Kim Jong-un.
Meantime, in what the South China Morning Post calls Japan’s “biggest show of naval force” since World War II, its helicopter carrier Izumo will cruise through the disputed waters of the South China Sea starting in May and will conduct joint maneuvers with U.S. and Indian naval forces in the Indian Ocean in July.
South Korean elections to replace disgraced President Park will also be held in May, and the favorite candidate is a liberal, Moon Jae-in, who was defeated by Park in 2012. Moon is said to be more open to reducing tensions with North Korea. But on Tuesday he cautioned China about the economic pressure it is imposing on South Korea, which some see as retaliation for deploying the THAAD anti-missile systems.
What Is THAAD? A $1.6 Billion US Weapon That’s Going to Korea – and Worrying China: In an effort to calm the increasingly dangerous standoff between North Korea on one side and the U.S. and South Korea on the other, China on Wednesday proposed a solution aimed at a long-term reduction in tensions: Pyongyang puts its nuclear and missile programs on ice, while Washington and Seoul halt joint military exercises.
China appears to be a peacemaker, but it may be running scared to the bargaining table for two reasons. While the repressive dynasty that has ruled North Korea since the 1950s could not have remained in power without Beijing’s support, the current leader, Kim Jong-un, is acting more unstable than his predecessor and must be reined in before he ignites a new war on the Korean Peninsula.
The second reason is an acronym: THAAD. That stands for Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense – the $1.6 billion-per-unit, anti-missile defense system that the U.S. began positioning in South Korea this week after North Korea fired four missiles on Monday said to be aimed at American bases in Japan.
The missiles were described by South Korean military and intelligence officials as a version of the Scud surface-to-surface ballistic missile. All four missiles fell into the Sea of Japan, but some came as close as 190 miles from the coast, according to Reuters.
One THAAD battery includes six truck-mounted launchers, 49 interceptors and AN/TPY-2 radar, according to DefenseNews. Raytheon, which builds the radar system for the unit in conjunction with Lockheed Martin, says it has “a record of flawless performance against all classes of ballistic missiles.”
But the radar’s accuracy and detection may be what China fears as much as the disruption of the balance of forces on the peninsula. The radar’s coverage could extend beyond North Korea and deep into China.
|US F-35's are ready to bomb N.Korea to oblivion.|
South Korea has been pushing for deployment of THAAD systems because its current missile defenses allow for interception at an altitude of only 9.3 miles. THAAD would increase that range to between 24.8 and 93.2 miles, and with both systems in place, there would be a double deterrent, the Seoul-based think tank Korea Defense & Security Forum told DefenseNews.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Wednesday said that Beijing’s intention was “to flash the red light and apply brakes” to the situation, The New York Times reported. But as the Times pointed out, a 2015 proposal by North Korea for a moratorium on nuclear tests in exchange for a cancellation of joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, which Pyongyang has called a prelude for invasion, went nowhere.
Beijing’s concern about Kim Jong-un may be more heightened than ever after the assassination of his estranged half-brother Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur and the execution of five of the North Korean leader’s top security officials with anti-aircraft guns because they “enraged” him with false reports.
Malaysian officials have implicated North Korean agents in the bizarre killing of Kim Jong-nam; Malaysian citizens are not being allowed to leave North Korea; North Koreans are not being allowed to leave Malaysia; and a video was posted on Tuesday in which a young man claiming to be Kim Jong-nam’s son says he and his mother and sister are in hiding.
(Ciro Scotti, a journalist, editor and media strategist, is a contributing editor to The Fiscal Times. Earlier, he was Deputy Editor, The Americas, at Reuters and Managing Editor at Bloomberg Businessweek.)