The U.S. Air Force has again flown heavy B-1B bombers over the Korean Peninsula, this time just days ahead of Donald Trump’s inaugural visit to Asia as president, with Japan set to be his first stop on Sunday.
Two B-1Bs from Andersen Air Force Base on Guam conducted sequenced bilateral missions Thursday with South Korean Air Force fighter jets and Air Self-Defense Force warplanes, the U.S. Pacific Air Forces said in a statement Friday.
“The two B-1B Lancers … transited south of Korea and west of Japan to integrate with Koku Jieitai (Japan Air Self-Defense Force) fighters,” the statement said. “The Lancers then transited overland to Korea to integrate with Republic of Korea fighters in the Yellow Sea. Upon completion of bilateral integration, the aircraft return to their respective home stations.”
The U.S. Pacific Air Forces said the “mission was planned in advance, to include coordination with the JASDF and ROKAF, and was not in response to any current event.”
But the South Korean military said the U.S. bombers, escorted by South Korean fighters, conducted simulated air-to-ground bombing drills over the Pilsung shooting range in northeastern Gangwon Province, the Yonhap news agency reported.
“B-1B bombers have flown over the Korean Peninsula once or twice per month,” Yonhap quoted a military source as saying. “The move is part of efforts to enhance rotational deployments of U.S. strategic assets to curb North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.”
Regional tensions are high over Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and atomic programs, which in recent months have seen it test long-range missiles and carry out its sixth nuclear blast. It has also lobbed two intermediate-range missiles designed to carry nuclear payloads over Hokkaido.
South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers on Thursday that North Korea may be planning a new missile test, after brisk activity was spotted at its research facilities, Yonhap reported.
The latest flight of B-1Bs comes ahead of Trump’s Asia tour, during which he is widely expected to focus on the North Korean nuclear crisis and ways to work with regional allies to rein in the regime’s atomic and missile programs. Trump will travel to Hawaii on Friday before embarking on the Asia leg of his visit. The 12-day trip will include stops in Japan, South Korea and China.
“The president recognizes that we’re running out of time (to deal with North Korea) and will ask all nations to do more,” White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said.
Military exercises involving the Guam-based B-1Bs have incensed Pyongyang, which views them as practice for striking the North Korean leadership.
Hours ahead of the official U.S. announcement Friday, North Korean state-run media blasted the flight as “surprise nuclear strike drill” targeting the country.
It said the bombers flew over Okinawa and then the southern South Korean island of Jeju, before changing direction and heading toward the Sea of Japan and over the peninsula “to conduct a nuclear bomb dropping drill simulating attack on major targets of the DPRK.”
Pyongyang has previously made similar claims, but the B-1B bomber, originally developed to carry atomic weapons, was converted to its exclusively conventional combat role in the mid-1990s, and is no longer nuclear-capable. It can, however, carry the largest payload of both guided and unguided weapons in the U.S. Air Force’s inventory.
It was unclear whether the North knows — or believes — this to be the case.
Thae Yong Ho, who was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom prior to defecting with his family to South Korea in 2016, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington on Wednesday that leader Kim Jong Un may not grasp the details of U.S. military power.
“Frankly, Kim Jong Un is not fully aware of the strength and might of American military power,” Thae said. “Because of this misunderstanding, Kim Jong Un genuinely believes that he can break the sanctions regime apart once he compels Washington to accept North Korea’s new status, after successfully completing the development of his ICBM program and putting the new missiles into deployment.”
The U.S. has sought to reassure nervous allies of its commitment with the military shows of force, including dispatches of so-called strategic assets such as aircraft carriers to the waters off the Korean Peninsula. The moves have angered Pyongyang, which views them as rehearsals for regime change and invasion.
On Friday, KCNA said the latest B-1B flight, the first since Oct. 10, had come as three U.S. aircraft carriers were in the military’s Pacific area of operations.
“The gravity of the situation is that the … drill was staged when the U.S. super-large nuclear-powered carrier Ronald Reagan task force remains still in waters around the Korean peninsula … and Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz nuclear-powered carriers strike groups of the U.S. concentrate in the operational theater of its 7th Fleet,” according to KCNA.
“The reality clearly shows that the gangster-like U.S. imperialists are the very one who is aggravating the situation of the Korean peninsula and seeking to ignite a nuclear war.”
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