|US B-1B Lancer bombers (AP-Yonhap)|
Two US B-1B bombers flew from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam on Thursday to participate in a sequenced bilateral mission with South Korean and Japanese jets, the US Pacific Air Forces said in a statement. The exercise had been scheduled ahead of time and was “not in response to any current event,” said CNN, quoting US Air Force spokesperson Capt. Candice Dillitte.
Hours after the drill, North Korea criticized the move as a “frenzied US scheme of threats and blackmail.”
“The gangster-like US imperialists are ceaselessly resorting to their frantic nuclear threat and blackmail to stifle North Korea with nukes at any cost,” the North’s state-run Korea Central News Agency said. It referred to the exercise as a “surprise nuclear strike drill targeting North Korea,” despite the B-1B bombers’ incapability of delivering nuclear payload.
“The US imperialists are making last-ditch efforts to check the dynamic advance of North Korea by deploying their nuclear strategic assets in succession, but its army and people are never frightened at such moves. The US imperialist warmongers should not act rashly,” it added.
The North has repeatedly voiced similar distaste over the ongoing joint military exercise, despite the US and Korea’s reiteration that it is defensive in nature. The North also warned it could stage an “unimaginable strike” against the US at an unexpected time, in a statement released amid last month’s five-day joint naval exercise in waters near the peninsula.
The US has boosted its military presence in the region with a series of such drills as Trump is planning to visit Korea on Tuesday and Wednesday. The threat Pyongyang poses to regional peace along with its fast-developing weapons program are expected to be key issues Trump will address during his Asian tour.
On Wednesday, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said an additional North Korean nuclear and missile test may come “soon,” citing the “active movement” of vehicles detected around a missile research facility there. Seoul’s spy agency also said it believes Tunnel 3 at the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site is prepared to withstand a nuclear test “at any time,” while noting the possibility of damage at the site and that Tunnel 4 may need a considerable amount of time to recover.
Amid mounting suspicions over deterioration of the North’s key nuclear facility, Pyongyang denounced a recent Japanese media report that a massive tunnel collapse at the site led to at least 200 deaths.
“(The false report) clearly shows how the US and Japan, that have failed to stop the advance of our nuclear power with their military threat or barbarous sanctions, tries to politically and morally damage North Korea,” it said through a statement via KCNA on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the US hinted that military options against the North will be discussed in a meeting between President Moon Jae-in and Trump scheduled for Tuesday.
“It would be irresponsible not to talk about the potential for military efforts within the alliance,” H.R. McMaster, national security adviser to US President Donald Trump, said in a roundtable interview with news outlets Thursday. But Washington has not given up on the option of diplomacy, he added.
Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to the South, warned that US military action against the North would almost certainly prompt a counterstrike resulting in high civilian casualties, speaking to US lawmakers last week.
Washington is also considering relisting the North as a state sponsor of terrorism, pointing to the regime’s alleged murder of Kim Jong-nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half brother who was killed in February.
Cheong Wa Dae on Friday said it is mulling drawing up unilateral sanctions against North Korea to further uphold the United Nations Security Council resolutions and bring the North to dialogue for denuclearization.
Experts here say Pyongyang will watch how the situation changes after Trump’s Asia tour before acting.
“The North will think twice before launching any sort of military provocation around the time of President Trump’s Asia tour,” said Koh Yoo-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.
“The regime will weigh the current situation and keep close tabs on how the situation shifts after the tour.”
By Jung Min-kyung (firstname.lastname@example.org)