SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea added to its recent barrage of weapons displays by firing four ballistic missiles into the sea on Saturday, while the United States sent two supersonic bombers flying over South Korea in a dueling show of military might that highlighted the growing tension in the region.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the four short-range missiles fired from North Korea’s western coastal area around noon flew about 130 kilometers (80 miles) toward the country’s western sea.
The North has fired more than 30 missiles this week, inclusive intercontinental ballistic missile on Thursday which prompted evacuation warnings in northern Japan and sent a large number of fighter jets into its territory in angry response to a massive combined air exercise between the United States and South Korea.
The South Korean military said two B-1B bombers trained with four U.S. F-16 and four South Korean F-35 fighter jets during the final day of the Vigilance Storm joint air exercise, which ends Saturday. It was the first time since December 2017 that the bombers were deployed to the Korean Peninsula. About 240 warplanes, including advanced F-35 fighter jets from both countries, participated in the exercise.
North Korea’s foreign ministry late on Friday described the country’s military action this week as an appropriate response to the drill, which it called a display of US “hysteria of military confrontation”. It said North Korea would respond with the “firmest countermeasures” to any attempts by “hostile forces” to undermine its sovereignty or security interests.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the B-1B’s participation in the joint exercises demonstrated the allies’ readiness to “sternly respond” to North Korea’s provocations and the US commitment to defend its ally with the full range of military capabilities, including nuclear.
The B-1B overflight has been a familiar show of force during past periods of tension with North Korea, including the North’s provocative attempt at long-range nuclear and missile tests in 2017. But the overflights have been suspended in recent years as the United States and South Korea suspended its large-scale military exercises in support of the former Trump administration’s diplomatic efforts with North Korea and because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Allies have resumed large-scale training this year after North Korea increased its weapons tests to a record pace, using a division in the UN Security Council on Russia’s war against Ukraine as a window to accelerate weapons development.
North Korea hates such close-range displays of US military power. The North continues to describe the B-1B as a “nuclear strategic bomber,” even though the aircraft switched to conventional armament in the mid-1990s.
Vigilant Storm was originally scheduled to end on Friday, but the allies decided to extend the exercise until Saturday in response to a series of ballistic launches by North Korea on Thursday, including an intercontinental ballistic missile that triggered evacuation warnings and halted trains in northern Japan.
Thursday’s launches came after the North fired more than 20 missiles on Wednesday, the most in a single day. Those launches came after North Korea’s top military official, Park Jong-chon, issued a veiled threat of nuclear conflict with the United States and South Korea over their joint exercises, which the North says are rehearsals for a potential invasion.
South Korea also on Friday scrambled about 80 warplanes after tracking about 180 flights of North Korean warplanes over North Korean territory. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said North Korean warplanes were detected in various areas inland and along the country’s east and west coasts, but did not come particularly close to the Korean border. The South Korean military spotted about 180 flight tracks from 1pm to 5pm, but it is unclear how many North Korean planes were involved and whether some may have flown more than once.
In a statement on Friday attributed to an unidentified spokesman, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the United States and South Korea had created a seriously “unstable atmosphere” in the region with their military exercises. He accused the United States of mobilizing its allies in a campaign using sanctions and military threats to pressure North Korea to unilaterally disarm.
“Prolonged provocation is bound to be followed by prolonged countermeasures,” the statement said.
North Korea has launched dozens of ballistic missiles this year, including multiple intercontinental ballistic missiles and an intermediate-range missile that flew over Japan. South Korean officials say there are indications that in the coming weeks North Korea may detonate its first nuclear test device since 2017. Experts say North Korea is trying to force the United States to accept it as a nuclear power and is seeking to negotiate concessions in the economy and security from a position of strength.
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