US carrier group arrives as North Korea ramps up threats

The USS Abraham Lincoln deploys from San Diego Naval Air Station North Island in California on Jan 3, 2022.

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - A US aircraft carrier group was in waters east of the Korean Peninsula for the first time in nearly five years, as Pyongyang is poised for provocations that could include its first nuclear test since 2017.

The USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group is conducting "bilateral operations with the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force," in waters between the peninsula and Japan, US Navy spokesperson Lieutenant Mark Langford said in a statement sent by email Wednesday (April 13).

"Our training enhances the credibility of conventional deterrence by demonstrating the strength of our bilateral partnerships," he said.

The carrier group dispatch is a show of force that comes after North Korea last month ramped up tensions by launching its first intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017.

It's also apparently restoring tunnels at the Punggye-ri site where it conducted all six of its previous nuclear tests, in what could be the harbinger of an imminent blast from an atomic device.

An atomic test would be the first globally in more than four years and add to concerns about the risks of nuclear brinkmanship amid Russia's war in Ukraine. Pyongyang could try to steal the spotlight from South Korea's inauguration of a new president on May 10 with a nuclear test, the DongA newspaper reported Tuesday, citing an unidentified South Korean government official.

North Korea is preparing for some of the biggest events on its political calendar that include nationwide celebrations Friday that mark the birth of deceased state founder Kim Il Sung - the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un - and the April 25 anniversary of the foundation of its army.

Jets could be heard flying over Pyongyang on Monday, specialist service NK News reported sources in the North Korean capital as saying.

This could indicate a military parade to coincide with the Friday festivities, after the residents in the city heard similar sounds just days before a military parade in October 2020 that included low-flying fighters adorned with LED lighting, it said.

North Korea has used the celebrations before to show off its military might and hold rallies demonstrating support for its leader.

North Korea may be looking at a mass rally Friday and a military parade on April 25, Yonhap reported.

The last time the US dispatched aircraft carrier groups to these waters was in 2017, when then President Donald Trump threatened to unleash "fire and fury" against North Korea for its tests of nuclear devices and missiles designed to carry a warhead to the US mainland.

The Abraham Lincoln carrier group was dispatched to the Yellow Sea, west of the peninsula, in March in response to weapons tests from North Korea.

Mr Kim then put a self-imposed moratorium on ICBM and nuclear tests that paved the way for three meetings with Mr Trump.

The talks led to no concrete steps to wind down Pyongyang's atomic arsenal, which only grew larger as the discussions fizzled.

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