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Revealed: How Donald Trump's North Korea 'armada' was actually sailing in wrong direction

Aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, guided-missile destroyer USS Wayne E Meyer and guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain in a photo exercise with Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers in the Philippine Sea in March CREDIT: US NAVY

When US president Donald Trump boasted early last week that he had sent an "armada" as a warning to North Korea, the aircraft carrier strike group he spoke of was still far from the Korean peninsula, and headed in the opposite direction.

It was even farther away over the weekend, moving through the Sunda Strait and then into the Indian Ocean, as North Korea displayed what appeared to be new missiles at a parade and staged a failed missile test.

The US military's Pacific Command explained on Tuesday that the strike group first had to complete a shorter-than-initially planned period of training with Australia. But it was now "proceeding to the Western Pacific as ordered," it said.

The perceived communications mix-up has raised eyebrows among Korea experts, who wonder whether it erodes the Trump administration's credibility at a time when US rhetoric about the North's advancing nuclear and missile capabilities are raising concerns about a potential conflict.

"If you threaten them and your threat is not credible, it's only going to undermine whatever your policy toward them is. And that could be a logical conclusion from what's just happened," said North Korea expert Joel Wit at the 38 North monitoring group, run by Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
North Korea should not test Donald Trump, Mike Pence warns

The US military initially said in a statement dated April 10 that Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of Pacific Command, directed the Carl Vinson strike group "to sail north and report on station in the Western Pacific."

Reuters and other news outlets reported on April 11 that the movement would take more than a week. The Navy, for security reasons, says it does not report future operational locations of its ships.
The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson transits the Sunda Strait in an image released on April 15
The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson transits the Sunda Strait in an image released on April 15 CREDIT: US NAVY

James Mattis, the defence secretary, initially appeared to play down the deployment on April 11, saying the Vinson was "just on her way up there because that's where we thought it was most prudent to have her at this time."

"There's not a specific demand signal or specific reason why we're sending her up there," he said.

But even Mattis initially misspoke about the strike group's itinerary, telling a news conference that the Vinson had pulled out of an exercise with Australia.

The Pentagon has since corrected the record, saying the ship's planned port visit to Fremantle, Australia, was canceled - not the exercise with Australia's navy.
On April 15, the US Navy even published a photo showing the Vinson transiting the Sunda Strait.

From April 16-18, the website Go Navy reported that the Vinson was in the Indian Ocean.

A US military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Vinson carried out the exercises after passing through the Sunda Strait and wrapped them up this week.

Key moments | North Korea’s nuclear history

  • 1950s

    Nuclear programme begins

    The Soviet Union assisted North Korea with its nascent nuclear energy programme.
  • 1969

    Reports of nuclear weapons development

    Chinese intelligence reports first indicated that Pyongyang was embarking on an effort to develop nuclear weapons.
  • 1974

    Joins Atomic Energy Agency

    North Korea joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and permitted international monitors to examine its work.
  • 1985

    Signs up to NPT

    Pyongyang signed up to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) after Russia provided it with the technology for four light-water nuclear reactors designed to generate electricity.
  • 1986

    Yongbyon reactor in operation

    The Yongbyon reactor was put into operation, North Korea’s major nuclear facility. Powered by uranium, it is capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.
  • 1993

    Leaves NPT

    Pyongyang left the NPT after refusing to reveal specific details of its nuclear programme to the IAEA.
  • 1994

    “Agreed Framework” signed

    North Korea and the US signed the “Agreed Framework”. Pyongyang would freeze its graphite-moderated nuclear reactor programme in return for fuel and efforts towards normalised political and economic relations, as well as the construction of two light-water nuclear reactors. North Korea also agreed to abide by its IAEA obligations.
  • 1998

    Claims of secret nuclear sites

    The US claimed North Korea was once again developing nuclear weapons at secret sites.
  • 2002

    Contravenes agreed nuclear framework

    In contravention of the 1994 Agreed Framework, North Korea was discovered to be pursuing uranium enrichment technology and plutonium reprocessing technologies. North Korea told US diplomats that it did indeed possess nuclear weapons.
  • April 2003

    Leaves NPT (again)

    North Korea again withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
  • August 2003

    Refuses to dismantle nuclear capabilities

    Six-party talks open in Beijing, bringing together China, North Korea, the US, South Korea, Russia and Japan. Washington requested the complete and confirmed dismantling of the North’s nuclear capabilities, but Pyongyang refused.
  • February 2005

    Declares nuclear weapons

    North Korea publicly declared it had nuclear weapons and withdrew from the six-party talks.
  • September 2005

    Agrees to scrap nuclear

    North Korea agreed a preliminary accord under renewed six-party talks that it will scrap all existing nuclear weapons and nuclear production facilities, rejoin the NPT and allow IAEA inspectors to return.
  • October 2006

    First nuclear test

    North Korea detonated a nuclear device with an estimated explosive force of less than one kiloton. China, which had reportedly attempted to convince the regime not to go ahead with the test, was given a 20-minute warning and flashed an emergency alert to Washington.
  • October 2006

    Second nuclear test

    North Korea detonated a second nuclear device and launched a number of short-range surface-to-air missiles. The yield of the test was put at close to 5 kilotons.
  • February 2013

    Third nuclear test

    An underground explosion at North Korea’s Punngye-ri nuclear test site was detected, with experts estimating the size of the blast at between 6 and 7 kilotons.
  • April 2015

    Evidence that Yongbyon has reactor restarted

    Satellite pictures suggested that the reactor at Yongbyon, the main nuclear site, may have been restarted.
  • May 2015

    North claims to have nuclear weapons capable of hitting US

    The Pentagon confirmed that this was theoretically possible, although the North Korean system had yet to be flight tested.
  • December 2015

    King Jong-un makes “H-bomb” claims

    King Jong-un claimed that his country was prepared to detonate a hydrogen bomb, in the first direct reference by the North to an “H-bomb”. At the time, this claim was greeted with widespread scepticism outside the country.
  • January 2016

    “Successful” hydrogen bomb test

    North Korea announced that it has conducted a “successful” hydrogen bomb test, which would be its first test of such a device. The announcement came shortly after an “earthquake” with an epicentre close to Punggye-ri nuclear test site was registered.
  • September 2016

    “Most powerful nuclear test”

    North Korea conducted a fifth nuclear test, its most powerful to date, South Korean military sources said monitors detected a 5.3-magnitude “artificial earthquake” near the North’s main nuclear site.
  • April 2017

    New missile test

    North Korea fired four ballistic missiles into the sea, as close as 300km (190 miles) to Japan’s north-west coast. The move came directly ahead of a US-China summit aimed at curbing the state’s nuclear weapons programme.


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