SEOUL – The North Korean Army on Thursday threatened a possible strike against U.S. bases in Japan, in response to the use of U.S. B-52 bombers, which are capable of carrying nuclear cruise missiles, in joint military drills with South Korea.
The threat came a day after Pyongyang condemned the B-52 flights as an “unpardonable provocation” and threatened military action if they continue.
The Pentagon confirmed that B-52s, taking off from Andersen Air Force base on Guam, had flown over South Korea as part of annual joint drills that Pyongyang insists are a rehearsal for invasion.
“We cannot tolerate the U.S. carrying out nuclear strike drills setting us as targets and advertising them as strong warning messages,” a spokesman for the North’s supreme army command said. “The U.S. should not forget that the Andersen base . . . as well as naval bases at Japan’s main island and Okinawa, are all within the range of our precision target assets,” he said in remarks run by the Korean Central News Agency.
Military tensions on the Korean Peninsula are at their highest level in years, with North Korea — angered by U.N. sanctions imposed after its nuclear test last month — threatening a second Korean War backed by nuclear weapons.
B-52s have taken part in joint exercises of the U.S. and South Korea before, but the Pentagon said it had publicized their use this time to underline U.S. commitment to defending its South Korean ally.
“If the enemy threatens us with nuclear weapons, we will respond with stronger nuclear attacks,” the North’s army spokesman warned.
Accusing Washington of orchestrating the sanctions resolution adopted by the U.N. Security Council earlier this month, North Korea has already threatened to launch “pre-emptive” nuclear strikes on unspecified U.S. targets.
North Korea has missiles that can strike South Korea and Japan but has yet to demonstrate it has the capability to fire long-range missiles that could reach the U.S.
Nevertheless, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced last week that Washington had decided to bolster missile defenses along the U.S. West Coast so as to “stay ahead of the threat” from the North Korean regime.
North Korea used a long-range rocket to successfully place a satellite in orbit in December.
Although Pyongyang insisted the launch was a purely scientific mission, most of the international community saw it as a ballistic missile test.
Experts said the December launch marked a step forward for the North’s missile program but stressed it was some way from developing a genuine intercontinental ballistic missile with crucial re-entry capability.
There are also doubts — despite its nuclear test in February — whether the North has mastered the technology to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to fit on a long-range missile.