US bombers on Thursday overflew the Korean Peninsula as part of an exercise with Japanese and South Korean warplanes, the US Air Force said, days before US President Donald Trump arrives in the region for a trip set to be dominated by the nuclear-armed North.
Tensions are high over Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs, which in recent months have seen it test intercontinental ballistic missiles and carry out its sixth nuclear detonation.
Trump’s visit is to throw a spotlight on the issue, after he and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un traded insults and threats of war.
Flights by the supersonic B-1B Lancer in the area always infuriate North Korea, which early yesterday condemned the drill as “blackmail.”
Two Lancers took off from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and were joined west of Japan by Japan Air Self-Defense Force fighters, US Pacific Air Forces said in a statement.
“The Lancers then transited overland to [South] Korea to integrate with Republic of Korea fighters in the Yellow Sea,” the statement said, adding that the aircraft later returned “to their respective home stations.”
The exercise was part of the “continuous bomber presence” mission in the Pacific and “was not in response to any current event,” the statement said.
The operation follows an Oct. 10 “show of force,” in which two Lancers staged the first nighttime joint aviation exercises with Japan and South Korea.
North Korea in July launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles apparently capable of reaching the US mainland — described by Kim as a gift to “American bastards.”
It followed up with two missiles that flew over Japan and its sixth nuclear test, by far its most powerful yet.
Trump has warned of “fire and fury” in response to Pyongyang’s threats, and derisively dubbed Kim “Little Rocket Man,” with Kim responding by calling Trump a “dotard.”
Earlier this week, the North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) described the US president as “incurably mentally deranged.”
Trump was yesterday to set off on his Asian tour, which includes visits to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines.
However, his message risks being undermined if the North stages some kind of provocation, such as a missile test.
Pyongyang could be preparing for another launch, the South Korean National Intelligence Service reportedly said on Thursday.
“Active movements of vehicles have been detected at a missile research facility in Pyongyang,” Yonhap news agency quoted the intelligence agency as telling a closed-door legislative hearing.
The North habitually condemns B-1B flights as rehearsals for an attack, and KCNA yesterday said: “The reality clearly shows that the gangster-like US imperialists are the very one who is aggravating the situation of the Korean Peninsula and seeking to ignite a nuclear war.”
Any military strike in North Korea could see retaliation and rapid escalation, and much of Seoul — a city of 10 million people — is within range of the North’s artillery.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has insisted that no military action on the peninsula can be taken without Seoul’s approval.
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