CNN gets exclusive access to U.S. aircraft carrier involved in joint military exercises with S. Korea
U.S. commanders say annual exercise serves as powerful deterrent to North Korea
But this has not stopped Pyongyang from flexing military muscles
With a deafening roar of jet engines and an explosion of steam, an F-18 Super Hornet catapults off the deck of the aircraft carrier, and veers up into the sky. Seconds later, another fighter jet shoots out down a parallel runway.
The aircraft carrier USS John C Stennis leads a strike group of approximately 8,400 pilots and sailors, three destroyers, a tanker ship as well as dozens of fighter jets, reconnaissance planes and helicopters.
Aboard a nuclear-powered U.S. carrier, USS Stennis
At a time of great tension on the divided mainland, they are here to train with the South Korean military in choppy, freezing waters to the east of the Korean Peninsula.
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This month, North Korea fired salvos of ballistic missiles twice in a period of eight days. In doing so, Pyongyang violated multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions. The launches also alarmed key U.S. allies in the region. Both South Korea and Japan are well within range of North Korea’s arsenal.
“Our role here is to hopefully provide deterrence to that sort of activity,” says Rear Admiral Ronald Boxall, commander of the carrier strike group.
He speaks while seated on a bridge over-looking the flight deck, as fighter jets continue to blast off the carrier in rapid succession.
“We’re also here to ensure that if we can’t deter, we’re here to defend and support the ironclad commitment we have with the Republic of Korea,” he adds, referring to South Korea.
The annual eight-week series of joint exercises performed by the U.S. and South Korean militaries infuriate the North Korean regime.
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Inevitably, the training season leads to saber-rattling on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone.
According to the South Korean defense ministry, North Korea fired around 90 ballistic missiles and rockets throughout the joint military exercise season in 2014.
But the usual tensions between these rival neighbors deteriorated sharply after North Korea claimed to have detonated its first hydrogen bomb last January – a claim the White House was skeptical of. That nuclear blast scare was followed in February by a rocket launch that put a satellite in orbit.
North Korea's verbal volleys
South Korea responded by reactivating rows of massive speakers that blast anti-regime propaganda across the demilitarized zone into North Korea. Seoul also announced the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a series of factories jointly operated with North Korea located just north of the DMZ – and a symbol of cooperation between the two Koreas.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council imposed a new round of economic sanctions aimed at punishing Pyongyang, followed by unilateral sanctions announced by the U.S. government.
READ: Conflict with N. Korea would be akin to WWII, U.S. general says
North Korea remains defiant. Neither sanctions, international isolation, nor joint military war games in South Korea have succeeded in convincing Pyongyang to abandon their program to develop nuclear weapons.
Last Tuesday, the country’s leader Kim Jong Un issued orders for his scientists and military to carry out a “nuclear warhead explosion test and a test-fire of several kinds of ballistic rockets able to carry nuclear warheads,” according to the state news agency KCNA. The government’s publicly-stated goal is to enhance nuclear attack capability.
“They’re very dedicated to having those capabilities,” says Troy University’s Daniel Pinkston, who currently teaches international relations in Seoul.
“If [the nuclear weapons] are not reliable today, they’re going to keep working so they’ll be reliable so that they can use them if they need to use them tomorrow, or next month, or next year.”
While pushing forward with efforts to develop an arsenal of ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear warheads, North Korea continues to object to the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises.
READ: Why N. Korea’s satellite launch is troubling
Last week, Pyongyang’s ambassador to the U.N. sent an open letter of protest to the Security Council which called the drills “a grave threat” to his country.
“We are always prepared to go and do whatever we need to do to defend and commit to our partnership with the Republic of Korea,” says Admiral Boxall, when asked about the North Korean accusations.