SEOUL, South Korea - The failure on part of its strongest ally, U.S. to deliver on its word of protecting South Korea by deploying a strike group led by aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson - has left South Korea confused.
The country, that is headed to the poll on May 9 is questioning U.S. President Donald Trump’s leadership and his strategy for unpredictable neighbour North Korea, more seriously.
While many mocked what came to be known as Trump's "Carl Vinson lie," many others are measuring the possible repercussions of the mix-up.
Two weeks back, Trump said he was sending "an armada" to Korean waters to potentially deal with threats from Pyongyang.
However, the strike group has been a no-show so far. But North Korea’s threats, followed by America’s counter threats have not ceased.
The constant war-like situation leaves South Korea in a very difficult position - even as the nation has been torn apart internally following its former President Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment and ouster.
Many are now questioning South Korea’s blind alliance and trust in U.S. and its guarantee of the nation’s security.
Speaking to the media, Presidential candidate Hong Joon-pyo, who is currently trailing in the polls said, “What Mr. Trump said was very important for the national security of South Korea. If that was a lie, then during Trump's term, South Korea will not trust whatever Trump says.”
South Korean media ran bold headlines, calling it Trump's "Carl Vinson lie," and speculated that the Russian and Chinese leaders must have had a good laugh at its absence.
The Carl Vinson strike group, a powerful military backing from the U.S., consisting of a carrier air wing, two guided-missile destroyers and a cruiser - was supposed to have been ordered to sail north after leaving Singapore on April 8. It was supposed to be a warning and a show of military might to North Korea - to silence its ambitions of launching another nuclear test or worse, a nuclear missile on either South Korea, Japan or the U.S.
South Korean media now likened Trump’s bluff of directing a robust defense against threats to North Korea’s show of force, where "fake missiles" are paraded through the streets of the North Korean capital.
One media report questioned, "Like North Korea, which is often accused of displaying fake missiles during military parades, is the United States, too, now employing 'bluffing' as its North Korea policy?"
How it all started
After attacking the Syrian regime, provoked by a chemical attack and then dropping the ‘Mother Of All Bombs’ in an ISIS region in Afghanistan - an all-powerful seeming America, citing its might, warned North Korea against doing something aggressive.
Trump declared that the USS Carl Vinson carrier group was being deployed to waters off the Korean Peninsula.
He said, “We are sending an armada. Very powerful. We have submarines. Very powerful. Far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That, I can tell you."
So when the media learnt that the carrier group was never actually steaming towards the peninsula, but rather heading to joint exercises with the Australian navy - the administration was faced with several questions.
The U.S. Navy published photos showing that the so-called strike group was actually sailing in the opposite direction through the Sunda Strait between the Indonesia islands of Sumatra and Java - which is more than 3,000 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula and over 500 miles southeast of Singapore.
While the revelation earned the U.S. mockery from Chinese people - Trump’s team finally confirmed on Wednesday that the USS Carl Vinson may finally be heading north.
The White House had to deal with the embarrassment of not being clear about the carrier group’s whereabouts and still making several threats to North Korea through the week.
U.S. officials insist that it's now on its way to the Sea of Japan, known in South Korea as the East Sea.
While questions remain over the efficacy of the tactic over time - many have said that if Trump's initial declaration was a bluff, it appears to have worked as the much anticipated North Korean nuclear test didn't materialize.
According to Yang Moo-jin, of the University of North Korean Studies, “I understand strategic ambiguity for military authorities. However, it's different (for a) political leader. Trump, (Vice President Mike) Pence and (Secretary of Defense James) Mattis all used this to raise tension and pressure North Korea. Strong nations' power comes from transparency, not the opposite. How does the U.S. expect South Koreans to trust the U.S. when its leader bluffs and exaggerates? South Koreans' feelings were hurt considerably by remarks by the leader of a close ally."
However, Trump’s initial statement about deploying the strike group is what led to the tense situation on the peninsula in the first place.
For months, both allies and enemies knew that North Korea might launch a missile in a show of power on the Day of the Sun, as the country marks the 105th anniversary of Kim Jong Un’s grandfather's birth, the country’s founder.
Following Trump’s warning, North Korea's deputy ambassador to the UN was prompted to warn that the U.S. was risking nuclear war with its actions on the peninsula.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Wednesday defended the President’s assertions vehemently in a media briefing, often losing his cool.
He told reporters, “We have an armada going toward the peninsula. That's a fact.”
He argued that the president's statement was accurate because the ships would eventually get to the waters between North Korea and Japan.
North Korean threats get stronger
However, in all the drama and bluff, North Korean state media issued a warning on Thursday to the United States.
Pyongyang has warned of a "super-mighty preemptive strike" as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. was looking at ways to bring pressure to bear on North Korea over its nuclear program.
The Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the North's ruling Workers' Party said, “In the case of our super-mighty preemptive strike being launched, it will completely and immediately wipe out not only U.S. imperialists' invasion forces in South Korea and its surrounding areas but the U.S. mainland and reduce them to ashes.”
Addressing reporters in Washington, Tillerson said, “We're reviewing all the status of North Korea, both in terms of state sponsorship of terrorism as well as the other ways in which we can bring pressure on the regime in Pyongyang to re-engage with us, but re-engage with us on a different footing than past talks have been held.”
In response to North Korea’s threat, South Korean pilot Lieutenant Colonel Lee Bum-chul addressed reporters following a meeting of top officials called by South Korea's acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn.
Bum-chul said, “We are conducting a practical and more intensive exercise than ever. Through this exercise, I am sure we can deter war and remove our enemy's intention to provoke us."