South Korea, US stage rare drills with air carrier

K-1 tanks roll out of a South Korean Navy transport vessel, during a drill on the coast of Pohang, South Korea, on May 24, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korea and the United States staged their first combined military exercises involving an American aircraft carrier in more than four years, Seoul's military said on Saturday (June 4), amid reports that North Korea was preparing for a nuclear test.

The three-day drills took place in international waters off the Japanese island of Okinawa until Saturday, including air defence, anti-ship, anti-submarine, and maritime interdiction operations, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said.

The exercises came amid signs that North Korea is gearing up to conduct a nuclear test for the first time since 2017. Seoul officials have said Pyongyang has conducted multiple experiments with a detonation device in preparation for its seventh underground explosion.

The USS Ronald Reagan, a 100,000-tonne nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, joined the drills, alongside the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam, the Aegis-equipped USS Benfold destroyer, and the Fleet replenishment oiler USNS Big Horn, the JCS said.

South Korea also sent the 14,500-tonne Marado amphibious landing ship, the 7,600-tonne Sejong the Great destroyer, and the 4,400-tonne Munmu the Great destroyer, among others.

It was the allies' first joint military exercise since South Korea's President Yoon Suk-yeol took office last month, and their first bilateral exercises involving an aircraft carrier since November 2017.

"The exercise consolidated the two countries' determination to sternly respond to any North Korean provocations, while demonstrating the US commitment to provide extended deterrence," the JCS said in a statement.

At a recent summit with Yoon, US President Joe Biden promised to deploy "strategic assets" - which typically include aircraft carriers, long-range bomber aircraft or missile submarines - if necessary to deter North Korea as part of efforts to bolster the extended deterrence.

On Friday, nuclear envoys from the United States, South Korea and Japan met in Seoul to brace for "all contingencies." The USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier, led US military exercises in the Yellow Sea in March, after North Korea conducted a full test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time since 2017. The USS Abraham Lincoln strike group also operated in waters off the Korean peninsula in April.

During the last major flurry of North Korea's ICBM and nuclear tests in 2017, carriers USS Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz, and their multi-ship strike groups, deployed near the peninsula in a show of force.

North Korea has long criticised the US-South Korea joint military drills as a rehearsal for war.

Amphibious assault vehicles land on the coast of Pohang, South Korea, during a drill, on May 24, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

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