The United States flew a supersonic bomber over ally South Korea as part of an enormous combined aerial exercise involving hundreds of warplanes in a show of force meant to intimidate North Korea over its barrage of ballistic missile tests this week.
At least one B-1B bomber participated on the last day of a joint US-South Korea air force exercise that wrapped up on Saturday, South Korea’s defence ministry said.
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South Korea’s military also said North Korea fired four short-range ballistic missiles into the sea.
The Vigilant Storm exercise – involving about 240 warplanes, including advanced F-35 fighter jets from both countries – has triggered an angry reaction from North Korea.
The North this week launched dozens of missiles into the sea, including an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that triggered evacuation warnings in northern Japan, and flew its own warplanes inside its territory.
North Korea’s foreign ministry late Friday described those military actions as an appropriate response to Vigilant Storm, which it called a display of US “military confrontation hysteria”.
Pyongyang said North Korea will respond with the “toughest counteraction” to any attempts by “hostile forces” to infringe on its sovereignty or security interests.
Large-scale training resumed
B-1B flyovers had been a familiar show of force during past periods of tensions with North Korea. The US has kept four of the bombers in Guam since late October, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
South Korea has asked the United States to step up deployment of “strategic assets”, which include aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and long-range bombers such as the B-1B.
After talks with Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin in Washington on Thursday, South Korean Defence Minister Lee Jong-sup said the US agreed to employ “US strategic assets to the level equivalent to constant deployment through increasing the frequency and intensity of strategic asset deployment in and around the Korean Peninsula”.
The planes last appeared in the region in 2017 during another provocative run in North Korean weapons demonstrations. But the flyovers were halted in recent years as the US and South Korea halted their large-scale exercises to support the Trump administration’s diplomatic efforts with North Korea and because of COVID-19.
The allies have resumed large-scale training this year as North Korea dialled up its weapons testing to a record pace. They are exploiting a divide in the UN Security Council, which has deepened because of Russia’s war on Ukraine and North Korea has used this window to accelerate arms development.
North Korea hates such displays of American military might at close range. The North has continued to describe the B-1B as a “nuclear strategic bomber” although the plane was switched to conventional weaponry in the mid-1990s.
Vigilant Storm had been initially scheduled to end on Friday, but the allies decided to extend the training to Saturday in response to a series of North Korean ballistic launches on Thursday, including an ICBM that triggered evacuation alerts and halted trains in northern Japan.
Thursday’s launches came after the North fired more than 20 missiles on Wednesday, the most it had launched in a single day.
Those launches came after North Korean senior military official Pak Jong Chon issued a veiled threat of a nuclear conflict with the United States and South Korea over their joint drills, which the North says are rehearsals for a potential invasion.
South Korea also on Friday scrambled about 80 military aircraft after tracking about 180 flights by North Korean warplanes inside North Korean territory. The South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the North Korean warplanes were detected in various areas inland and along the country’s eastern and western coasts, but did not come particularly close to the Koreas’ border.
The South Korean military spotted about 180 flight trails from 1-5pm, but it was not immediately clear how many North Korean planes were involved and whether some may have flown more than once.
In Friday’s statement attributed to an unidentified spokesperson, North Korea’s foreign ministry said the US and South Korea had created a seriously “unstable atmosphere” in the region with their military exercises.
Pyongyang accused the Washington of mobilising its allies in a campaign using sanctions and military threats to pressure North Korea to unilaterally disarm.
“The sustained provocation is bound to be followed by sustained counteraction,” the statement said.
South Korean officials say there are indications North Korea in coming weeks could detonate its first nuclear test device since 2017.
Analysts say North Korea is attempting to force the US to accept it as a nuclear power and seeks to negotiate economic and security concessions from a position of strength.