WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific has ordered an aircraft carrier and several other warships toward the Korean Peninsula in a show of force by the Trump administration just days after North Korea tested another intermediate-range missile.
The officer, Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., head of the military’s Pacific Command, diverted the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its wing of fighter jets from a planned series of exercises and port calls in Australia, the command said in a statement. The Vinson and three guided-missile destroyers and cruisers steamed out of Singapore Saturday for their new mission in the Western Pacific.
Rerouting the naval armada is President Donald Trump’s latest escalation in force against a potential adversary. Trump ordered a cruise missile strike last week against a Syrian military air base in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government that killed scores of civilians.
At a meeting last week at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, the president joined with President Xi Jinping of China in warning of the increasing menace posed by North Korea’s advancing nuclear weapons program. Asked Sunday why the Navy ships were being redirected toward the Korean Peninsula, the president’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, said it was a “prudent” step to take.
“North Korea has been engaged in a pattern of provocative behavior,” McMaster said on “Fox News Sunday.” “This is a rogue regime that is now a nuclear-capable regime. The president has asked to be prepared to give him a full range of options to remove that threat to the American people and to our allies and partners in the region.”
The White House said in a statement Sunday that Trump had spoken to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan the day before on many issues, including the North Korean nuclear threat.
Military and intelligence officials said the timing of the ship movements was also intended to anticipate a milestone event coming up on the Korean Peninsula: the anniversary on Saturday of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder and the grandfather of the country’s current leader, Kim Jong Un. North Korea has a history of testing missiles and generally taking provocative actions during such events.
By dispatching the Vinson, the United States is signaling to the North Koreans that even as it focuses on Syria, it has not forgotten about them.
Administration officials said the strike by 59 cruise missiles on Syria might have strengthened Trump’s hand as he called on the Chinese to put more pressure on North Korea. Although officials noted that North Korea poses different, and in some ways more daunting, challenges than Syria, the parallel of a rogue government that possesses weapons of mass destruction was not lost on the Chinese.
Xi told Trump during their meetings at Mar-a-Lago that he agreed that the threat posed by North Korea had reached a “very serious stage,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.
Speaking on Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Tillerson expanded on what the rest of the world should take away from the missile strikes in Syria: “The message that any nation can take is if you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point, a response is likely to be undertaken.”
Tillerson continued: “In terms of North Korea, we have been very clear that our objective is a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. We have no objective to change the regime in North Korea; that is not our objective.”
North Korea, however, has stepped up its provocations. A day before Trump met with Xi, Pyongyang tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile. South Korean and U.S. specialists said the missile tested Wednesday — which the South Korean military said flew a mere 37 miles — was probably a modified version of either the Scud-ER or Pukguksong-2, or perhaps a new missile, even an early version of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Analysts have said that as North Korea was developing its first submarine-launched ballistic missile last year, it accumulated technology incrementally, with a series of tests in which projectiles flew only short distances or exploded soon after launching.
The United States has been conducting an electronic and cyberwarfare campaign aimed at sabotaging Pyongyang’s missile tests in their opening seconds. But it was impossible to determine whether that program affected the launch last week.
Asked how close North Korea was to developing a weapon that could reach the United States, Tillerson said on ABC: “The assessments are, obviously, somewhat difficult, but clearly, he has made significant advancements in delivery systems. And that is what concerns us the most.”
Tillerson added: “The sophistication around their rocket launch programs, their sophistication around the type of fueling that they use, and they’re working their way towards the test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. And these are the kinds of progress that give us the greatest concerns.”
Before the summit meeting last week, Trump sought to increase pressure on China, saying that it was time for Beijing to rein in its communist ally. In an interview with The Financial Times published April 2, he said, “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.” But he did not say how.
In the meetings between Xi and Trump, the Chinese made no new offers about how to deal with Kim’s government, according to a U.S. official.
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