SEOUL, South Korea—When news broke less than two weeks ago that the Trump administration was sending the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson to the Korean Peninsula, many South Koreans feared a possible war with North Korea. Others cheered for Washington, calling the deployment a powerful symbol of its commitment to deterring the North.
On Wednesday after it was revealed that the carrier strike group was actually thousands of miles away and had been heading in the opposite direction, toward the Indian Ocean, South Koreans felt bewildered, cheated and manipulated by the United States, their country’s most important ally.
“Trump’s lie over the Carl Vinson,” read a headline on the web site of the newspaper JoongAng Ilbo on Wednesday. “Xi Jinping and Putin must have had a good jeer over this one.”
“Like North Korea, which is often accused of displaying fake missiles during military parades, is the US, too, now employing ‘bluffing’ as its North Korea policy?” the article asked.
The episode raised questions about whether major allies of the United States, like South Korea and Japan, had been informed of the carrier’s whereabouts, and whether the misinformation undercut US strategy to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions by using empty threats.
Compounding their anger over the Carl Vinson episode, many South Koreans also were riled at President Donald J. Trump for his assertion in a Wall Street Journal interview last week that the Korean Peninsula “used to be a part of China” .
Although Korea was often invaded by China and forced to pay tributes to its giant neighbor, many Koreans say the notion that they were once Chinese subjects is egregiously insulting. “The 50 million South Koreans, as well as many common-sensical people around the world, cannot help but feel embarrassed and shocked,” said Youn Kwan-suk, spokesman of the main opposition Democratic Party, which is leading in voter surveys ahead of the May 9 presidential election.
US aircraft carriers regularly visit areas near the Korean Peninsula as part of annual military exercises with South Korea and Japan. But when the US Pacific Command said on April 9 that the Carl Vinson had been ordered to leave Singapore and return to the Western Pacific, the decision was considered highly unusual, as it had been in exercises off the Korean Peninsula just last month.
“We’re sending an armada,” Trump said at the time. On Wednesday the South Korean Defense Ministry declined to comment, other than to say that the US and South Korea do not discuss the details of their joint strategy to deter North Korean provocations.
But critics accused the ministry of fanning jitters among South Koreans before a May 9 presidential election in which North Korea’s behavior has been a central issue—as have Seoul’s close military ties to Washington.
“There is no way for South Korea not to have known the Carl Vinson would not be in Korean waters last Saturday,” said Kim Dong-yub, a former navy officer and defense analyst at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul. “Still, they kept mum, doing nothing to ease the anxiety when security was a key election issue.”
Kim added, “What they did was nothing short of trying to influence the election. The whole episode is a reminder of how fettered South Korea remains to its alliance with the US.”
Shin In-kyun, a military expert who runs the civic group Korea Defense Network, said Trump appeared to have used the Carl Vinson as a feint aimed at preventing North Korea from conducting a nuclear test.
“It would have been very awkward for the South Korean military to come out and clarify when they knew that Trump was bluffing,” Shin said. “The bluffing worked, in fact. North Korea didn’t do a nuclear test last Saturday.”
Coupled with Trump’s order to strike a Syrian air base with dozens of missiles, and repeated warnings from his senior aides that “military options” were not off the table in dealing with North Korea, news of the Carl Vinson rushing back to Korean waters stirred anxiety in South Korea. The fear was if North Korea were to conduct a nuclear or long-range missile test on Saturday to commemorate the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the North’s founding president and the grandfather of Kim Jong Un, the Carl Vinson would be in Korean waters by then to launch a preemptive strike.
North Korea, never one to be outdone in tough talk, accused the US of bringing war to Korea and vowed to respond with nuclear attacks at US military bases in South Korea and Japan. This week it unveiled a video depicting its missiles engulfing a US city in flames, shown as a backdrop for the Kim Il Sung celebration.