The U.S. Air Force sent two B-1B strategic bombers stationed on Guam on a wide-ranging flight for joint drills with the Air Self-Defense Force and South Korea’s military Tuesday, just hours after the death of a former U.S. detainee in North Korea was announced.
The 10-hour mission from Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base saw the B-1Bs take to the skies near Kyushu and above the East China Sea before departing for the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. Pacific Air Forces said in a statement.
The separate bilateral exercises, in which U.S. bombers linked up with ASDF F-15s and Republic of Korea Air Force F-15s, were the latest in an unprecedented string of drills between the U.S. allies after a spate of North Korean missile launches and the death of onetime detainee Otto Warmbier.
“These flights with Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) demonstrate solidarity between Japan, ROK and the U.S. to defend against provocative and destabilizing actions in the Pacific theater,” the Pacific Air Forces said.
Prior to the drills, the bombers, a key strategic asset of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region, had been scheduled to carry out a mock bombing practice with South Korean forces at a range in the country’s east.
Tuesday’s joint exercises could be seen as a response to Warmbier’s release and death. The 22-year-old college student was revealed to have been in a coma for more than a year upon his release last week. He was sentenced in March 2016 to a 15-year prison term with hard labor for alleged “anti-state” acts against the North.
In an interview Tuesday, liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has sought talks with the North Korean regime, blasted the reclusive country for Warmbier’s death, labeling Pyongyang an “irrational regime.”
“We can make speculations that there were many unjust and cruel treatments to Mr. Warmbier. And I strongly condemn such cruel actions by North Korea,” Moon said in an interview with CBS News, according to a transcript posted to the outlet’s website.
“We cannot know for sure that North Korea killed Mr. Warmbier,” Moon added. “But I believe it is quite clear that they have a heavy responsibility in the process that led to Mr. Warmbier’s death.”
While Moon has eyed a different approach than his predecessor to the seemingly intractable issue, the Trump administration has continued to dispatch a number of strategic assets to the region this year, including aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. The U.S. military has also conducted a range of joint exercises with the South Korean military and Self-Defense Forces.
North Korea has lambasted the moves, calling the latest known B-1B exercise on May 29 a “nuclear bomb-dropping drill.” That exercise came just hours after the North test-fired a short-range ballistic missile.
Tensions have surged after Pyongyang unleashed a string of missile launches and tests of other advanced weaponry in recent weeks, as it seeks to highlight its progress toward mastering the technology needed to mount a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile capable of striking the continental United States.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed sanctions against North Korea for the reclusive state’s nuclear and ballistic missile activities, which Pyongyang has rejected.
The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that American diplomats have held secret talks in Pyongyang and European cities with North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator for more than a year, hoping to free U.S. prisoners and even establish a diplomatic channel to rein in the North’s nuclear and missile programs.
In a New Year’s Day address, Kim claimed that the North was in the “final stages” of developing an ICBM capable of striking the continental United States. Trump has vowed that a launch of a long-range missile by Pyongyang “won’t happen” on his watch.
North Korea warned Saturday that it was “not too far away” from testing such a missile.
Trump has offered mixed messages on Kim, saying, at various times, that he would be “honored” to meet him under the right conditions and even going so far as to describe him as a “smart cookie.”
But the unpredictable U.S. leader has also described Kim as a “madman with nuclear weapons.”
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