The United States has flown nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to the Korean Peninsula in a show of strength against North Korea as concerns grow that Pyongyang might conduct a nuclear test.
The long-range bombers took part in joint aerial drills with US and South Korean fighter jets over the Korean Peninsula, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said. Wednesday’s deployment was the first of US B-52 bombers to the peninsula in a month.
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The drills “show the strong resolve of the [South] Korea-US alliance and its perfect readiness to respond to any provocation by North Korea swiftly and overwhelmingly”, Lieutenant General Park Ha-sik, commander of the South Korean air force operation command, said in a statement.
The South Korean and US militaries have been expanding their combined military drills in response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.
Last month, the allies conducted their biggest field exercises in five years as well as computer simulations for command post training. The US also sent the nuclear-powered USS Nimitz aircraft carrier for naval training with South Korea last week and US-South Korea-Japan anti-submarine drills this week.
North Korea sees such military exercises as provocations that show its rivals’ intention of attacking the country. A day after the last flight by a B-52 bomber to the peninsula on March 6, Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, warned that her country was ready to take “quick, overwhelming action” against the US and South Korea.
North Korea has since test-launched a series of nuclear-capable weapons designed to attack South Korea and the US. They have included the Hwasong-17, the North’s longest-range intercontinental ballistic missile; a nuclear-capable underwater drone that is under development; and cruise missiles fired from a submarine.
Last week, North Korea unveiled a new battlefield nuclear warhead to fit on short-range weapons targeting South Korea. That touched off speculation that it may want to carry out its first nuclear test since 2017 because its previous two nuclear test detonations happened after it disclosed other new warheads. If conducted, it would be the North’s seventh nuclear weapons test.
Whether North Korea has functioning nuclear-armed missiles remains a subject of debate. Some experts say a new nuclear detonation would be aimed at testing a miniaturized warhead for short-range missiles because the country’s recent weapons tests have focused more on weapons that place key military installations in South Korea, including US military bases there, within striking distance.
Kim Jong Un has said North Korea won’t return to denuclearisation talks with the US unless Washington drops hostile polices towards the North, an apparent reference to its joint military drills with South Korea and US-led international economic sanctions. Some observers say North Korea’s leader wants to use his growing weapons arsenal to pressure Washington to accept it as a nuclear power and lift the sanctions.
On Friday, the chief nuclear envoys of South Korea, the United States, and Japan are to meet in Seoul to discuss how to respond to North Korea’s recent weapons tests, according to Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs
During a policy meeting on Wednesday, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said security cooperation among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo is crucial in dealing with North Korean nuclear threats and other challenges. He said South Korea must bolster its missile defence and ability to carry out preemptive and retaliatory attacks.