Toward the end of last week, the world was on edge and anticipating a conflict on the Korean peninsula, but talk of war appears to have been a product of miscommunication and media hype.
As tensions were rising, a U.S. Navy carrier strike group was believed to be moving into waters off Korea, and Pyongyang was suspected of preparing for another nuclear test. As it turns out, the carrier was sailing in the opposite direction, and North Korea was preparing for a parade and a failed ballistic missile test.
The strike group was last spotted off Indonesia, over 3,000 miles from the Korean peninsula, Defense News reported Tuesday.
Reuters, citing an unnamed U.S. official, reported on April 9 that a U.S. Navy carrier strike group led by the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was moving toward the “Western Pacific Ocean near the Korean Peninsula in a show of force.” Pointing to North Korean aggression, the official said, “We feel the increased presence is necessary.”
The following day, U.S. Pacific Command confirmed the report, revealing that “Adm. Harry Harris, commander, U.S. Pacific Command, has directed the Carl Vinson Strike Group to sail north and report on station in the Western Pacific Ocean.”
“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 be North Korea, due to its reckless, irresponsible and destabilizing program of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.”
Sending the USS Carl Vinson to Korea was perceived as a continuation of President Donald Trump’s tough tactics, which were demonstrated in Syria with a strike on an airfield in the wake of a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters April 11 that the USS Carl Vinson is “on her way up there,” and Trump said the next day that “we are sending an armada.”
Reports citing unnamed government officials claimed last Tuesday that North Korea had placed a nuclear device in the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Analysts with 38 North, a research site run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, said satellite images indicated the test site was “primed and ready.”
Observers suspected that a North Korean nuclear weapons test was imminent and that the most reasonable time for such a display of power was April 15 — the Day of the Sun, the 105th anniversary of the birth of revered North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
In the midst of this madness, unverified reports began circulating that China had moved 150,000 troops to the Korean Peninsula in anticipation of a conflict. North Korea was convinced that the USS Carl Vinson was on its way and condemned the aircraft carrier’s deployment as an act of “reckless aggression.”
China reportedly put its troops on alert for a contingency on the peninsula and issued warnings to North Korea.
“If Pyongyang conducts its sixth nuclear test in the near future, the possibility of US military action against it will be higher than ever,” the Global Times wrote, “Not only is Washington brimming with confidence and arrogance following the missile attacks on Syria, but Trump is also willing to be regarded as a man who honors his promises.”
Secretary of State Tillerson, in contrast with the White House and the Department of Defense, tried to downplay USS Carl Vinson’s movements, arguing that there was “no particular objective” and that observers should not “read to much” into the carrier strike group’s activities.
After the U.S. military dropped the so-called “mother of all bombs” on Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan last Thursday, media reports hinted that the strike was a message to North Korea. The president didn’t exactly clear things up.
“I don’t know if this sends a message. It doesn’t make any difference if it does or not,” Trump explained. “North Korea is a problem. The problem will be taken care of.”
At this point, the U.S. had already bombed two different countries, and a U.S. Navy strike group was believed to be on the way to North Korea, which was reportedly planning a sixth nuclear test.
The Trump administration had already stated that the strike on Syria demonstrated that the president will act when governments and actors “cross the line.” Observers posited that a nuclear test in violation of United Nations resolutions could merit a military response. A highly-criticized NBC report citing unnamed intelligence officials claimed the U.S. would launch a preemptive strike on North Korea if signs of an imminent nuclear test were detected.
China warned Friday, the day before North Korea’s big day, that the U.S. and North Korea had “swords drawn and bows bent” and that “storm clouds” were gathering. The Chinese foreign minister said he feared that “war could break out at any moment,” and North Korea said it “will go to war” if Trump provokes it.
War never came. North Korea rolled out a few missiles in a military parade and test-fired a possible anti-ship ballistic missile, a provocation potentially in response to reports that a U.S. navy strike group was moving into the area.
There was no nuclear weapons test, and the USS Carl Vinson was not even in the area; however, there is still the possibility that the North will conduct a nuclear test at some point in the near future, and the Navy carrier strike group is expected to arrive in waters off the Korean Peninsula next week.
This whole process may play out again later.
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