US holds joint air exercises with Asian allies after North Korea’s ICBM launch
By Soo Hyang Choi
SEOUL (Reuters) – The United States held joint strategic bomber aerial exercises bilaterally with South Korea and Japan on Sunday, a day after North Korea fired a Hwasong-15 ICBM in a “sudden launch exercise”.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the exercise, which saw South Korea’s F-35A, F-15K and US F-16 fighters escort American B-1B bombers, demonstrated the Allies’ “overwhelming” defensive capabilities and preparedness postures.
“(The exercise) strengthened the combined operational capability and reaffirmed the United States’ ironclad commitment to defending the Korean Peninsula and implementing enhanced deterrence,” the southern military said in a statement.
Japan flew F-15s with US forces’ B-1 bombers and F-16s in tactical exercises over the Sea of Japan, Japan’s defense ministry said in a statement, calling the security environment “increasingly stringent” after the recent North Korean missile. landed within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
“This bilateral exercise reaffirms the strong will between Japan and the United States to respond to any situation, the readiness of the (Japan Self-Defense Forces) and U.S. forces, and further strengthens the deterrence and response capability of the Japan-US alliance,” das said ministry.
The air exercises come a day after North Korea launched a long-range ballistic missile into the sea off Japan’s west coast, after South Korea and the United States warned of a strong response to upcoming military exercises.
North Korea’s state media KCNA said the country held a “sudden launch exercise” on Saturday to provide “actual proof” of its efforts to “transform the capability of a deadly nuclear counterattack on enemy forces into an irresistible one.”
Leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong issued another warning, accusing the United States of trying to turn the UN Security Council into what she called a “tool for its vile hostile policies” toward Pyongyang .
“I warn that we will monitor every movement of the enemy and take appropriate and very powerful and overwhelming countermeasures against any of his movements hostile to us,” she said in a statement.
Saturday’s missile launch, the North’s first since Jan. 1, came after Pyongyang on Friday threatened an “unprecedentedly heavy-handed, strong” response as South Korea and the United States focused on their annual military drills as part of efforts to fight back prepared for the growing nuclear power and missile threat that the North poses.
North Korea’s state-run news agency said its missile flew up to 5,768 km (3,584 miles) for 1 hour, 6 minutes and 55 seconds before accurately hitting a preset area 989 km (614 miles) away in open water. In 2017, a Hwasong-15 was tested for the first time.
Last year, nuclear-armed North Korea launched an unprecedented number of missiles, including ICBMs, that can hit anywhere in the United States as it resumed preparations for its first nuclear test since 2017.
South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said Saturday’s launch “clearly signals” the North’s intention to carry out further provocations.
“When North Korea conducts the seventh nuclear test, which could happen at any time, it will be a game changer in the sense that North Korea could develop and deploy tactical nuclear missiles,” Park said at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday.
KCNA said the North’s recent launch, directed by the Missile General Bureau, was conducted on an “emergency firepower combat readiness order” issued at dawn, followed by a written order from Kim Jong Un at 8 a.m. ( 2300 GMT on Friday). The South Korean military said it spotted the missile at 5:22 p.m. (0822 GMT).
“The important thing here is that the drill was ordered on the day of the day without warning to the crew involved,” said Ankit Panda, a missile expert with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The time between ordering and launch will likely be shortened with additional testing.”
Analysts say North Korea is likely to conduct more weapons tests, including a possible new solid-fuel missile that could help the North deploy its missiles more quickly in the event of war.
North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs are banned under UN Security Council resolutions, but Pyongyang says its weapons development is necessary to counter “hostile policies” by Washington and its allies.
(Reporting by Soo-hyang Choi and Josh Smith in Seoul, Chang-Ran Kim in Tokyo; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Daniel Wallis, William Mallard, Michael Perry and Hugh Lawson)