SEOUL/WASHINGTON – The United States said it was flying training missions of nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over South Korea, in a clear signal to North Korea at a time of escalating military tensions.
The flights — part of annual joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises — should be seen as underscoring U.S. commitment and capacity to defend Seoul against an attack from the North, Pentagon press secretary George Little said.
In response to U.N. sanctions imposed after its third nuclear test last month, North Korea has warned of a “second Korean war” and threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the South and the U.S.
Little said one B-52 from Andersen Air Force base in Guam took part in a training mission over South Korea on March 8, and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said during a visit to Seoul that another bomber mission was scheduled for Tuesday.
B-52 bombers are capable of launching nuclear-armed cruise missiles, but Little said those participating in the Korean exercise are not armed with nuclear weapons.
“The B-52 Stratofortress can perform a variety of missions including carrying precision-guided conventional or nuclear ordnance,” he said Monday.
B-52s have taken part in annual exercises before, but Little said that the Pentagon wanted to underline their use this time given the current, heightened tensions, and he added that further B-52 flights would be carried out.
“We’re drawing attention to the fact that we have extended deterrence capabilities that we believe are important to demonstrate in the wake of recent North Korean rhetoric,” he said.
In a major announcement on Friday, the United States unveiled plans to bolster its own missile defenses in direct response to the growing threat posed by North Korea.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that 14 more interceptors would be stationed in Alaska, increasing by almost half the 30 already deployed along the California and Alaska coastlines.
Hagel said the defense upgrade was designed to “stay ahead of the threat” from North Korea, which is still believed to be years from having a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the continental United States.
The U.S. initiative did not go down well in Beijing, where the Chinese Foreign Ministry warned that any effort to increase military capacity would only serve to “intensify antagonism.”
China is North Korea’s sole major ally and main trading partner.
Although it backed the latest U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang, analysts say China’s main concern is to avoid sudden regime collapse in Pyongyang that might result in a U.S.-allied, reunified Korea.
Despite its growing isolation and the stepped-up international pressure, North Korea insists its plan to develop a viable nuclear deterrent is “unshakable” and non-negotiable.
On the first day of negotiations for a conventional weapons treaty at U.N. headquarters on Monday, the North’s deputy U.N. Ambassador, Ri Tong Il, proclaimed the North’s “very proud and powerful” position as the latest nuclear weapons state.
Ri also denounced what he termed a U.S. policy of “nuclear blackmail” that he insisted would “in the long run give birth to more nuclear weapons states.”