The United States says a naval strike group led by the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan has entered the western Pacific Ocean and will join an ongoing military exercise with South Korea.
The U.S. military said Wednesday that the giant carrier is accompanied by a guided missile cruiser and a destroyer squadron. The ships will join in the annual Foal Eagle exercise which began early last week involving about 200,000 South Korean and 13,000 U.S. troops.
South Korea has described the drill as a routine defense exercise, but North Korea says it will respond to any provocation by turning South Korea's capital, Seoul, into a "sea of fire."
China strongly objected last year when the United States announced plans to send another aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, into the Yellow Sea for an earlier joint exercise with South Korea.
The U.S. military said the purpose of sending the USS Ronald Reagan into the region is to "enhance maritime partnerships and promote peace and stability in the region." Its commander, Rear Admiral Robert Girrier, is as quoted saying his forces are "looking forward to every opportunity to enhance our commitment to the region."
This year's Foal Eagle exercise takes place amid high tensions caused by North Korea's deadly artillery attack on a South Korean island in November and the sinking of a South Korean warship last March.
The two attacks killed 50 South Koreans. Pyongyang denies any responsibility for the sinking of the Cheonan, which an international investigation linked to a North Korean torpedo. North Korean officials also claim that South Korea provoked the North's attack on the island.