The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has ordered the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to the waters off North Korea. The deployment of the carrier strike group is intended as a warning to the regime of Kim Jong Un, which has spent the past several years speeding up its nuclear weapons and missile development programs.
The move came hot on the heels of a cruise missile strike the United States launched on a Syrian government airbase, citing the need to prevent the latter’s further use of chemical weapons in that country’s civil war. These shows of strength have been met with praise from the Japanese government, which has long advocated a North Korea policy based on a mix of dialogue and pressure and sees the moves as boosting U.S. deterrent power.
The Carl Vinson’s redeployment likely has two parallel aims; the first being to get the measure of North Korea’s intentions, and the second to press China to deal with its petulant ally. The Japanese government should use the U.S. actions as a lever to bring about a diplomatic settlement to the North Korean problem.
According to Trump, the U.S.’s North Korea policy went badly off-track after the 1994 accord to freeze the regime’s nuclear program, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has declared that all options — including military action — “are on the table.”
Moving the Carl Vinson strike group to waters off the Korean Peninsula is surely an expression of this new assertive attitude, and the U.S. has its reasons. After all, while North Korea could not have struck directly at the U.S. in the two-plus decades since the 1994 pact, the regime’s recent efforts to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles mean that the mainland United States could soon be threatened by a North Korean nuclear attack. The danger posed by the North is rising by degrees, and wariness of the regime is strong indeed.
Trump met Chinese President Xi Jinping recently for talks, but all the two leaders could agree on regarding North Korea was that its nuclear development program had reached a critical stage. Trump stated that the U.S. would deal with North Korea on its own should China be unwilling to cooperate. The USS Carl Vinson got its new sailing orders shortly thereafter — almost certainly a message to China to act on the North Korean problem.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that he “supports the resolve of the U.S. government” following the missile attack on the Syrian airbase. Some Japanese government figures believe the strike was also intended as a warning to China and North Korea.
However, should tensions on the Korean Peninsula rise too high, Japan would be put in serious and immediate danger. If some unforeseen incident should occur — up to and including North Korean and U.S, forces clashing with each other — Japan and South Korea would not escape harm.
North Korea’s intentions remain opaque. The Trump administration has said resuming talks with the North is a possibility, but only if the Kim regime ceases all nuclear and missile testing. Meanwhile, North Korea calls the deployment of the Carl Vinson strike group an act of reckless aggression.
To convince the Kim government to abandon its atomic weapons program, efforts must be made to create an environment to resume the long-dormant six-party talks among North Korean, Japan, South Korea, China, Russia, and the United States. Abe and Trump have communicated closely with each other. The Japanese government should use this link to take the initiative and press for a balance of dialogue and pressure in dealing with North Korea.