The USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier is docked in Busan, South Korea, on September 23, 2022. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI | License Photo
BUSAN, South Korea, Sept. 23 (UPI) -- The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its strike group arrived in the port city of Busan on Friday to conduct joint drills with the South Korean navy, in a demonstration of military might and extended deterrence against a growing nuclear threat from North Korea.
The visit to Busan is the first in five years for the 1,100-foot, 97,000-ton Nimitz-class carrier and comes shortly after Pyongyang passed a new law giving it the right to conduct preemptive nuclear strikes.
"The Ronald Reagan strike group's visit is of strategic importance to the U.S. and Republic of Korea relationship and is a clear and unambiguous demonstration of U.S. commitment to the alliance," Rear Adm. Buzz Donnelly, the strike group's commander, told reporters during a briefing aboard the ship.
The Republic of Korea is the official name of North Korea.
Donnelly said the port call was a "previously scheduled long-term commitment" and avoided directly tying it to the threat from North Korea.
"We leave the messaging to the diplomats," he said. "Our interactions with the ROK Navy are tactically purposeful in developing interoperability to ensure credible combat power," he said.
Washington and Seoul have ramped up their military engagement in recent months under the administration of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has looked to take a stronger stance against an increasingly truculent North.
Last week, the United States committed to deploy "strategic assets" to South Korea "in a timely and effective manner to deter and respond to [North Korea] and enhance regional security." It pointed to the visit of the USS Ronald Reagan as a "clear demonstration of such U.S. commitment" and warned that any nuclear attack by North Korea would "be met with an overwhelming and decisive response."
The allies returned to full-scale field exercises last month for the first time since 2018, drawing a furious reaction from Pyongyang, which has long characterized the exercises as a rehearsal for an invasion.
North Korea has launched a flurry of missiles in 2022 and officials in Seoul and Washington have assessed that the secretive regime is poised for a nuclear detonation at any time.
The nuclear-powered Ronald Reagan last conducted joint exercises around the Korean Peninsula in October 2017, just a month after North Korea's sixth nuclear test.
The forward-deployed supercarrier is based in Yokosuka, Japan with the Navy's 7th Fleet. It has a crew of 4,900 sailors and carries roughly 60 aircraft including F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter jets and E-2D Hawkeye early warning planes.
The Ronald Reagan was joined in Busan by missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville and destroyer USS Barry. The destroyer USS Benfold docked in Chinhae, 22 miles west of Busan.
American and South Korean officials did not share details of the joint exercises or the length of the carrier strike group's stay.