By sending a U.S. navy strike force into waters near North Korea, President Donald Trump is raising concerns that he is prepared to put America's interests ahead of those of regional allies.
The threat of force against North Korea has gained new credibility following U.S. airstrikes against Syria for using chemical weapons on its own people. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the military strike against Syria was a warning to other countries, including North Korea, that “a response is likely” if they pose a danger.
“I think Kim Jong Un fears to see such a situation,” said North Korea defector and analyst Ahn Chan-il, with the World Institute for North Korean Studies.
The U.S. Pacific Command said it ordered the USS Carl Vinson group, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and accompanying ships, including guided missile destroyers and aircraft squadrons, to sail towards the Korean Peninsula as a “prudent measure,” citing Pyongyang's “reckless, irresponsible, and destabilizing” nuclear and ballistic missile provocations.
South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-kyun said Monday the deployment of the Carl Vinson carrier strike group to the region is defensive in nature.
“Considering that the possibility of a North Korean strategic provocation, especially a nuclear test or missile launch is rising, (the U.S.) is adopting a full readiness posture,” said Moon.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, also voiced support for the increased U.S. deterrence measures.
“It all comes down to the fact that their [the U.S.] stance is that all options are on the table. Japan praises that kind of stance,” said Suga.
North Korea on the other hand said the U.S. strikes against Syria justify its efforts to develop a reliable nuclear deterrent against Washington's “ever more reckless moves towards war.”
The move comes amid reports that North Korea is posed to conduct another nuclear test, with movements detected by satellites at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. North Korea in the past has timed provocative missile tests to coincide with the April 15 birthday of its founding leader, the late Kim Il Sung, a holiday known as the Day of the Sun.
Since January 2016 Pyongyang has conducted two nuclear tests, as well as launching numerous short and medium range ballistic missiles. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said earlier this year that his country is in the final stage of conducting a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could potentially reach the U.S. mainland.
The Trump administration has placed a high priority on preventing North Korea from developing a credible long-range nuclear ballistic missile capability that could directly threaten U.S. national security.
However there is growing concern in South Korea that the U.S. will actually launch a strike against a nuclear or missile facility in the North, if Pyongyang follows through with another provocative test.
Political analyst Bong Young-shik, with the Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies, said launching an attack against the North is a risky proposition, that is likely to cause more harm than good.
“I question whether the United States is ready to assume all the responsibilities for the consequences of that action,” said Bong.
A U.S. unilateral attack would likely provoke nuclear North Korea to retaliate against the South, putting at immediate risk the millions of people who live in Seoul and other areas close to the inter-Korean border.
Robert Kelly, a professor of political science at Pusan University, wrote in his Asian Security Blog, that the situation could quickly escalate and that “the slide from a limited action toward war would loom.”
Analysts say any U.S. unilateral action against North Korea that could also severely strain the alliance between Seoul and Washington.
While official reaction in Seoul has been supportive of the U.S. naval strike force deployment, some candidates running for president in South Korea are urging caution. An interim government has been in place in South Korea following the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye for her alleged involvement in a bribery scandal. An early presidential election has been scheduled for May 9.
Both Moon Jae-In, the leading candidate in the race who represents the liberal Democratic Party of Korea, and a spokesman for the conservative Liberty Party Korea, called on the U.S. to consult with South Korea before taking any military action.
It is also unknown how China would react. Last week's Florida summit between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jingping produced no immediate breakthrough on how to deal with the increasing North Korean nuclear threat.
“Both sides agree that the level of North Korea's WMD [weapons of mass destruction] threat has reached a very serious level, but I think they are still miles apart in terms of what kind of measures have to be taken to deal with the problem,” said Bong.
While Beijing opposes North Korea's nuclear program, it is reluctant to increase sanctions against its economically dependent ally for fear of causing widespread instability and losing a strategic buffer zone against the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
On Monday, China sent it's top nuclear envoy to Seoul to discuss the increasing North Korean threat, the results of the Xi/Trump summit, and the contentious issue of the U.S. THAAD missile defense system being deployed in the South, which Beijing strongly opposes.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report.