North Korea has added to its recent barrage of weapons demonstrations by launching four ballistic missiles into the sea, as the United States sent two supersonic bombers streaking over South Korea in a duelling display of military might that underscored rising tensions in the region.
- North Korea’s missile tests raise concerns the nation is set to resume nuclear testing for the first time in five years
- The latest launches come as the US and South Korea wrap up a six-day joint exercise
- Pyongyang is accusing both nations of being “provocative” with their actions
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the four short-range missiles fired from a North Korean western coastal area around noon flew about 130 kilometres toward the country’s western sea.
The North has test-fired more than 30 missiles this week, including an intercontinental ballistic missile on Thursday that triggered evacuation alerts in northern Japan, and flew large numbers of warplanes inside its territory in an angry reaction to a massive combined aerial exercise between the US and South Korea.
The South Korean military said two B-1B bombers trained with four US F-16 fighter jets and four South Korean F-35 jets during the last day of the Vigilant Storm joint air force drills that wraps up Saturday.
It marked the first time since December 2017 that the bombers were deployed to the Korean Peninsula. The exercise involved around 240 warplanes, including advanced F-35 fighter jets from both countries.
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry late Friday described the country’s military actions this week as an appropriate response to the exercise, which it called a display of US “military confrontation hysteria.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has overseen several of the recent tests in person. (AP: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service )
It said North Korea will respond with the “toughest counteraction” to any attempts by “hostile forces” to infringe on its sovereignty or security interests.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said the participation of the B-1Bs in the joint drills demonstrated the allies’ readiness to “sternly respond” to North Korean provocations and the US commitment to defend its ally with the full range of its military capabilities, including nuclear.
B-1B flyovers had been a familiar show of force during past periods of tensions with North Korea, including the North’s provocative run in nuclear and long-range missile tests in 2017.
But the flyovers had been halted in recent years as the US and South Korea stopped their large-scale exercises to support the former Trump administration’s diplomatic efforts with North Korea and because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The allies resumed their large-scale training this year after North Korea dialled up its weapons testing to a record pace, exploiting a divide in the UN Security Council over Russia’s war on Ukraine as a window to accelerate arms development.
North Korea hates such displays of American military might at close range. The North has continued to describe the B-1B as a “nuclear strategic bomber” although the plane was switched to conventional weaponry in the mid-1990s.
Allies extend drills in response to North
Vigilant Storm had been initially scheduled to end on Friday, but the allies decided to extend the training to Saturday in response to a series of North Korean ballistic launches on Thursday, including an ICBM that triggered evacuation alerts 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 Korean senior military official Pak Jong Chon issued a veiled threat of a nuclear conflict with the US and South Korea over their joint drills, which the North says are rehearsals for a potential invasion.
The JCS said the North Korean warplanes were detected in various areas inland and along the country’s eastern and western coasts, but did not come particularly close to the Koreas’ border.
The South Korean military spotted about 180 flight trails from 1pm to 5pm local time, but it wasn’t immediately clear how many North Korean planes were involved and whether some may have flown more than once.
US and South blamed for ‘unstable atmosphere’
In Friday’s statement attributed to an unidentified spokesperson, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the US and South Korea had created a seriously “unstable atmosphere” in the region with their military exercises.
It accused the US of mobilising its allies in a campaign using sanctions and military threats to pressure North Korea to unilaterally disarm.
“The sustained provocation is bound to be followed by sustained counteraction,” the statement said.
North Korea has launched dozens of ballistic missiles this year, including multiple ICBMs and an intermediate-range missile flown over Japan.
South Korean officials say there are indications North Korea in coming weeks could detonate its first nuclear test device since 2017.
Experts say North Korea is attempting to force the US to accept it as a nuclear power and seeks to negotiate economic and security concessions from a position of strength.