The US navy has deployed a strike group towards the western Pacific Ocean to provide a presence near the Korean peninsula, a US official said on Saturday.
The Carl Vinson strike group, which includes an aircraft carrier, was originally scheduled to make port calls in Australia, but is now on its way from Singapore to the western Pacific ocean.
“US Pacific Command ordered the Carl Vinson Strike Group north as a prudent measure to maintain readiness and presence in the western Pacific,” said Commander Dave Benham, spokesman at US Pacific Command.
“The number one threat in the region continues to be North Korea, due to its reckless, irresponsible and destabilising program of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability,” he said, in an unusually forceful statement.
The news followed a Friday report by NBC that the National Security Council had included the return of nuclear weapons to South Korea in options presented to Donald Trump for dealing with the threat posed by North Korea. Killing North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, was also presented as an option, NBC reported.
On Saturday the White House said the US president had spoken to the acting president of South Korea, Hwang Kyo-Ahn. North Korea, meanwhile, called the US missile strike on Syria on Thursday night “an intolerable act of aggression”.
Rising tensions between North Korea, South Korea and the US and the North’s nuclear ambitions were chief among subjects discussed by Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in Florida this week.
The White House said on Saturday Trump spoke with Hwang about the strike in Syria, launched in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack on civilians by Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The two leaders agreed to stay in close contact, the White House said, regarding North Korea and other issues of mutual concern.
Analysts have said the Syria strike contained a clear message for Pyongyang that the US was not afraid to exercise the military option, and there had been speculation as to how the North would respond.
Trump has recently threatened unilateral action against Pyongyang if Beijing fails to help curb its neighbour’s nuclear weapons programme. Pyongyang’s response on Saturday suggested the reclusive state was determined to continue with its nuclear weapons programme.
“Swaggering as a superpower, the US has been picking only on countries without nuclear weapons and the Trump administration is no exception,” a foreign ministry spokesman said, according to the KCNA news agency.
The comments were Pyongyang’s first since Trump ordered the strikes on an airbase in Syria.
“The US missile attack against Syria is a clear and intolerable act of aggression against a sovereign state and we strongly condemn it,” KCNA quoted the spokesman as saying.
The reality of today shows that we must stand against power with power and it proves a million times over that our decision to strengthen our nuclear deterrence has been the right choice.
“The Syria attack thoroughly reminds us the fact that it is absolutely dangerous to have any illusions about imperialism and only military power of our own will protect us from imperialistic aggression.
“We will keep bolstering our self-defensive military might in various ways in order to cope with the ever-intensifying US acts of aggression.”
The North has carried out five nuclear tests – two last year – and expert satellite imagery analysis suggests it could well be preparing for a sixth.
Pyongyang has shown no sign of reining in a missile testing programmeultimately aimed at securing the capability to deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental US.