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Carl Vinson is sailing toward Korea now -- it wasn't before

Confusion over the deployment of a US aircraft carrier continued to roil South Korea on Wednesday after an aircraft carrier strike group, initially known to be heading toward the Korean Peninsula, was found to have been sailing in the opposite direction, thousands of kilometers away.

On April 9, the US Navy announced the diversion of the Carl Vinson Strike Group to the Western Pacific from its original route from Singapore to Australia. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, White House press secretary Sean Spicer and other top officials called the decision a “prudent” measure given pressing North Korean threats, while President Donald Trump lauded the group as a “very powerful armada.“

The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier (Yonhap)
The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier (Yonhap)

In Seoul, a flurry of speculation has since been spreading. There was a false rumor that the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its three accompanying warships were due to arrive here on April 15 to coincide with North Korea‘s celebration of the 105th birthday of late national founder Kim Il-sung, for which it was widely expected to conduct a nuclear or international ballistic missile test. Then some South Korean and foreign media reported the Carl Vinson was to join another two carriers -- the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Nimitz -- in an intensified show of force against the communist state.

On Sunday, however, the US’ Defense News revealed that the Carl Vinson had in fact been operating several hundred kilometers south of Singapore, taking part in scheduled exercises with Australian forces in the Indian Ocean. Photos released Saturday by the US Navy showed the carrier passing north through the Sunda Strait, the passage between the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java, about 5,600 kilometers from the peninsula.

Meanwhile, the outlet said the USS Ronald Reagan is still at its Yokosuka, Japan base for maintenance, which is scheduled to be completed in May. The Bremerton, Washington-based USS Nimitz is planned to cruise toward the Middle East after wrapping up its final preparations for a summer deployment, according to the NavyTimes.

The US Pacific Command said Wednesday the Carl Vinson is now proceeding to the Western Pacific, after departing Singapore on April 8 and cancelling a scheduled port visit to Perth.

AFP reported the carrier will start heading north toward the East Sea ”within the next 24 hours,” quoting an unidentified US defense official. Citing multiple defense officials, CNN said the group will arrive in the waters off the peninsula by the end of April.

”The strike group was able to complete a curtailed period of previously scheduled training with Australia in international waters off the northwest coast of Australia. The Carl Vinson Strike Group is heading north to the Western Pacific as a prudent measure,“ a PACOM spokesperson told The Korea Herald via email, without elaborating on its detailed itinerary.

Separately, Rear Adm. Jim Kilby, commander of Carrier Strike Group 1, said Wednesday that the deployment of the carrier group had been extended by a month “to provide a persistent presence in the waters off the Korean Peninsula.”

Washington has yet to publicly address the perceived misdirection. CNN quoted a senior US administration official as blaming miscommunication between the Pentagon and the White House, pointing to a “lack of follow-up with commanders.”

“I think this is an intended mixup for North Korea,” said Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Security and Defense Forum in Seoul. “I understand it could aggravate South Korea’s security concern, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Carl Vinson will come to the region as a show of force."

By Yeo Jun-suk (jasonyeo@heraldcorp.com)
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