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U.S. aircraft carrier leading strike group toward Korean Peninsula

WASHINGTON — A U.S. aircraft carrier-led strike group is headed toward the Western Pacific Ocean near the Korean Peninsula, a U.S. defense official said.

The move of the Vinson strike group is in response to recent North Korean provocations, the official said.

Adm. Harry Harris, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, directed the USS Carl Vinson strike group to sail north to the Western Pacific after departing Singapore on Saturday, Pacific Command announced.

It is not uncommon for aircraft carriers to operate in that area, and the United States regularly deploys military assets, such as aircraft, to the region as a show of force. In fact, the Vinson was in South Korea last month for military exercises.

Just days ago, North Korea launched a Scud extended-range missile, which U.S. officials said exploded in flight. The regime also has recently conducted several missile engine tests as it works to improve its ballistic missile technology.

In September, North Korea says it successfully tested a nuclear warhead. Pyongyang claims it is pursuing nuclear weapons to defend itself from what it calls US aggression.

News of the carrier move comes just after a summit meeting between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, where North Korea was one of the top items on the agenda.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump and Xi agreed on the “urgency of the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program” and agreed to work together to resolve the issue “peacefully.”

Earlier this year, China called on North Korea and the U.S. to tone down tension on the Korean Peninsula — North Korea by suspending its nuclear weapons program and the U.S. by stopping military exercises with South Korea that inflame the Pyongyang regime.

Days before the summit, Trump warned the U.S. was prepared to act unilaterally to stop North Korea’s nuclear program from advancing further should China be unwilling to use its leverage over Pyongyang.

But analysts say any unilateral military options for the U.S. concerning North Korea posed significant problems.

While the U.S. possesses overwhelming firepower compared to North Korea, an American strike on North Korea could expose South Korea to devastating casualties in retaliation, experts say.

The Vinson strike group will operate in the Western Pacific rather than executing previously planned port visits to Australia, Pacific Command said.

The nuclear-powered, 97,000-ton Vinson, one of 10 active U.S. aircraft carriers, has more than 60 aircraft and about 5,000 personnel. It is based in San Diego.

Sailing with the Vinson are the guided-missile destroyers USS Wayne E. Meyer and USS Michael Murphy and the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain, according to a statement from U.S. Pacific Command.

The destroyers and the cruiser are all equipped with the Aegis missile defense system. The U.S. Navy has tracked previous North Korean missile launches with Aegis, which can shoot down ballistic missiles like those North Korea has been testing.

Another Aegis-equipped US warship drilled with similar vessels from the South Korean and Japanese navies off the Korean Peninsula last month in what the US Navy called “a trilateral missile warning informational link exercise.”