North Korea launched four ballistic missiles into the sea on Saturday as the US sent two supersonic bombers over South Korea in a display of military force that underscored rising tensions in the region.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said that the four short-range missiles fired from a western coastal area about midday flew about 130 kilometres towards the country’s western sea.
The North has test-fired more than 30 missiles this week, including an intercontinental ballistic missile on Thursday that led to evacuation alerts in northern Japan, and flew large numbers of warplanes inside its territory in a reaction to the combined aerial exercise involving the US and South Korea.
The South Korean military said two B-1B bombers trained with four US F-16 fighter jets and four South Korean F-35s jets on Saturday during the last day of the Vigilant Storm joint air force drills. The exercise involved about 240 warplanes, including fifth generation F-35 fighter jets from both countries.
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry late on Friday described Pyongyang’s military actions this week as an appropriate response to the exercise, which it called a display of US “military confrontation hysteria”.
It said North Korea will respond with the “toughest counteraction” to any attempts by “hostile forces” to infringe on its sovereignty or security interests.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the participation of the B-1Bs in the joint drills demonstrated the allies’ readiness to “sternly respond” to North Korean provocations and the US commitment to defend its ally with the full range of its military capabilities, including nuclear.
B-1B flyovers had been a familiar show of force during past periods of tensions with North Korea.
The planes last flew over the Korean Peninsula in December 2017 during another series of North Korean weapons demonstrations. But the flyovers had been halted in recent years as the US and South Korea stopped their large-scale exercises to support the Trump administration’s diplomatic efforts with North Korea and because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The allies resumed their large-scale training this year after North Korea raised up its weapons testing to a record pace, exploiting a divide in the UN Security Council over Russia’s war on Ukraine as a window to accelerate arms development.
North Korea opposes such displays of US military might at close range. It describes 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 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 US and South Korea over their joint drills, which the North claims are rehearsals for a potential invasion.
South Korea also on Friday sent up about 80 military aircraft after tracking about 180 flights by North Korean warplanes inside North Korean territory.
In Friday’s statement, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the US and South Korea had created a seriously “unstable atmosphere” in the region with their military exercises. It accused the US 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.
North Korea has launched dozens of ballistic missiles this year, including ICBMs and an intermediate-range missile flown over Japan.
South Korean officials said 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.
Source: With Agencies