The U.S. sent two nuclear-capable strategic bombers buzzing over ally South Korea on Tuesday in a show of force meant to impress upon North Korea Washington’s commitment to Seoul after Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear test days earlier.
Yet, in an apparent carrot-and-stick approach, the U.S. envoy to the Koreas said Washington has left the door open for talks, should the North make prove ready to negotiate “sincerely.”
The battle-tested B-1B bombers, flying from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, conducted a low-altitude flight over South Korea’s Osan Air Base, about 120 km from the demilitarized zone border with the North.
The bombers, which can carry the largest payload of both guided and unguided weapons among the air force’s aircraft, were escorted by South Korean and U.S. fighter jets during the flight over Osan.
“The United States and the Republic of Korea are taking actions every day to strengthen our alliance and respond to North Korea’s continued aggressive behavior,” U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Vincent Brooks said in a statement. “Today’s demonstration provides just one example of the full range of military capabilities in the deep resources of this strong alliance to provide and strengthen extended deterrence.”
The U.S. Pacific Command also revealed Tuesday that ahead of the Osan overflight, the B-1Bs had conducted fighter interception training with two F-2 fighters from the Air Self-Defense Forces, which later conducted a handoff of the U.S. B-1Bs to the South Korean fighters in international airspace.
Upon completion of the flight, the B-1Bs returned to Guam.
In January, the U.S. flew a B-52 bomber over Osan after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test. Such flights are common amid periods of high tensions on the Korean Peninsula, which is technically in a state of war as there has never been a peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean conflict.
“These flights demonstrate the solidarity between South Korea, the United States and Japan to defend against North Korea’s provocative and destabilizing actions,” U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris said in a separate statement.
South Korea hosts more than 28,000 U.S. troops, and tens of thousands more are stationed in Japan.
“North Korea continues to blatantly violate its international obligations, threatening the region through an accelerating program of nuclear tests and unprecedented ballistic missile launches that no nation should tolerate,” he said.
“We stand resolutely with South Korea and Japan to honor our unshakable alliance commitments and to safeguard security and stability,” Harris added.
Pacific Command called the flights with Japan and South Korea “the latest demonstration of the strength of the bilateral alliances” between the U.S. and Japan and South Korea, “and the broadening cooperation by the three nations in working to defend the respective homelands from threats posed by North Korea.”
Daniel Pinkston, an East Asia expert at Troy University in Seoul, said that despite legacies leftover from the colonial period — and the failure to completely resolve all related historical issues to the satisfaction of all parties — there are many areas where the interests of Japan and South Korea converge, namely the North Korean nuclear missile threat.
“The threat is creating greater incentives for trilateral cooperation and Japan-ROK security cooperation,” Pinkston said. “Their bilateral defense treaties with the U.S. are different — the U.S.-ROK treaty is a mutual defense treaty, but the U.S.-Japan treaty is not and was structured that way because of Article 9 in Japan’s Constitution. However, the Abe government’s concept of collective self-defense and the new defense guidelines are creating more space for the Self-Defense Forces to do more.”
The South Korean overflight came a day after the country’s Defense Ministry said the North was ready to conduct an additional nuclear test at any time after Pyongyang’s fifth — and most powerful — atomic blast Friday.
That test, as well as the North’s numerous recent successes with its missile program, has sent tensions soaring on the Korean Peninsula and prompted Pyongyang’s rivals to seek measures to rein in its nuclear and missile efforts.
South Korea, which falls under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, does not have atomic weapons. The U.S. military removed its nuclear bombs from the country in 1991. The U.S. says it could still defend the South with long-range nuclear missiles based elsewhere and with bombs aboard Guam-based aircraft.
In his statement, U.S. Forces Korea’s Brooks called the North’s nuclear test a “dangerous escalation” that “poses an unacceptable threat.”
“The United States has an unshakable commitment to defend allies in the region and will take necessary steps to do so, including operations like this one today, and the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) battery to the Korean Peninsula,” he said.
The trilateral tie-up between Japan, South Korea and the U.S. was likely to raise eyebrows in China, which has looked on warily as Tokyo and Seoul have seen bolstered ties in recent years.
Beijing has been especially critical of Seoul’s decision to install the THAAD system, which it sees as an American effort to contain China. Officials there argue that the system’s radar can detect Chinese missiles on the mainland, undermining its nuclear deterrent.
“These trilateral exercises are intended to demonstrate the strength and solidarity of Washington and its allies — Tokyo and Seoul — in the face of a growing threat by North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs,” said J. Berkshire Miller, a Tokyo-based international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. “Pyongyang’s destabilizing actions have been serving as a fertilizer for more trilateral cooperation between the U.S. and it’s allies on security matters.”
According to Miller, China will protest and call for calm, but it has been unable — and often unwilling — to reign in the North’s provocations.
“Beijing also is already at odds with South Korea over the deployment of THAAD so this will only magnify their recent strategic divergence. China’s protest remains hollow though because not only is THAAD aimed at North Korea, and not Beijing, but also its enabling role with North Korea has helped contribute to issues now on the Korean Peninsula.”
News of the flyover came as Sung Kim, the top U.S. envoy on North Korea, called for robust United Nations action in response to the nuclear test.
“Our intention is to secure the strongest possible (U.N. Security Council) resolution that includes new sanctions as quickly as possible,” Kim was quoted as saying after meeting his South Korean counterpart in Seoul.
He said the United States will work with China, North Korea’s major diplomatic ally, to close loopholes in existing resolutions, which were tightened with Beijing’s backing in March.
“China has been very clear that they understand the need for a new U.N. Security Council resolution in response to the latest North Korean nuclear test,” Kim said.
But he also noted that the U.S. remains open to authentic, meaningful dialogue with Pyongyang on ending its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
“It’s a question of North Korean intentions and commitment. If North Korea is ready to talk to us sincerely, I think we can work with that within the six-party process,” he said.
The so-called six-party talks aimed at halting Pyongyang’s nuclear program involve the U.S., Russia, Japan, South Korea, China and North Korea, but have been stalled since 2008.
But any return to those talks will not only require Chinese acquiescence, but also a more toned-down approach to the North out of Seoul.
This appears far off.
On Tuesday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye issued another tough statement against North Korea, ordering her military to be ready to “finish off” the country should it fire a nuclear-tipped missile toward South Korea.
Park had said recently that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s “mental state is spiraling out of control” and that his government shows “fanatic recklessness.”
Information from Reuters added
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