SEOUL – South Korea said Monday it was discussing the further deployment of U.S. “strategic assets” following a flyover by a U.S. B-52 bomber in response to North Korea’s latest nuclear test.
“South Korea and the U.S. are in close consultations about additional deployment of other strategic assets on the Korean Peninsula,” Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told a regular press briefing in Seoul.
In a show of strength on Sunday, a B-52 Stratofortress — flanked by South Korean F-15 fighter jets and U.S. F-16 planes — flew over Osan Air Base, some 70 km (45 miles) south of the inter-Korean border.
The U.S. military said Sunday’s flyby was a demonstration of the “ironclad” commitment to its military alliance with South Korea, and a direct response to the North’s fourth nuclear test.
U.S. and South Korean media reports have speculated that the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier U.S. Ronald Reagan — currently based in Japan — B-2 stealth bombers and F-22 stealth fighter jets, are among the deployments being considered.
The discussions came as the chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff warned that North Korea was likely to carry out further “sudden provocations”, a South Korean Defense Ministry official said.
Meanwhile, the commander of the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, urged them to be vigilant.
“I want you to maintain the highest level readiness from a long-term view as joint military exercises are coming up,” Scaparrotti told U.S. and South Korean forces on a visit to a base, a U.S. military official said.
He was apparently referring to joint annual military exercises that usually begin in February or March and invariably provoke an angry reaction from North Korea.
On the diplomatic front, South Korea said its chief nuclear negotiator planned to meet his U.S. and Japanese counterparts Wednesday to discuss a response to North Korea, and the next day, he would meet China’s nuclear envoy in Beijing.
North Korea has been under United Nations Security Council sanctions since its first test of an atomic device. After its third test, in 2013, the Security Council took about three weeks to agree on a resolution that tightened financial restrictions and cracked down on its attempts to ship and receive banned cargo.
South Korea and Japan used a military hotline for the first time after North Korea’s recent test, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said, in a sign Pyongyang’s behavior is pushing the two old rivals closer together.
Seoul also announced Monday additional restrictions on the movement of its citizens to the jointly run Kaesong industrial park, just a few kilometers over the border inside North Korea.
The South has taken an uncompromising stance in the wake of Wednesday’s test, urging the international community to impose harsh sanctions on Pyongyang, and resuming high-decibel propaganda broadcasts into North Korea.
South Korea President Park Geun-hye was to make a televised address to the nation Wednesday, followed by a rare news conference, her office said.
North Korea claims last week’s test was of a miniaturized hydrogen bomb — a claim largely dismissed by experts who argue the yield was far too low for a full-fledged thermonuclear device.
As well as resuming the propaganda broadcasts, which one top North Korean official warned could bring the peninsula to the “brink of war,” Seoul has also taken measures to restrict movement to the Kaesong industrial park.
On Monday, the Unification Ministry announced that the number of South Koreans allowed to stay overnight in Kaesong was being reduced from 800 to 650.
“The aim is to minimize the presence in Kaesong, while not hampering actual production activities,” a ministry official said.
The Kaesong industrial estate opened in 2004 and currently hosts more than 120 South Korean companies that employ some 53,000 North Korean workers.
The move is apparently motivated by security concerns, with fears that South Koreans staying in the industrial zone could be vulnerable if North-South tensions continue to escalate.
The Defense Ministry spokesman in Seoul also said Monday that North Korea had deployed more troops to front-line border units.
“There has been an increase in troops along the border following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test,” Kim said. “But there are no immediate signs of any imminent provocation.”
North Korea, meanwhile, published a photo Monday of leader Kim Jong Un posing formally with hundreds of scientists, workers and officials who participated in the latest test.
Kim congratulated them on “succeeding in the first H-bomb test … and bringing about a great, historic event,” the North’s official KCNA news agency reported.