Air drills draw N Korean response: ‘when will war break out?’
US bombers join airforce manoeuvres as Pyongyang says battle an ‘established fact’
US Air Force B-1B bomber flanked by South Korean and US fighters fly over the Korean Peninsula during the Vigilant air combat exercise. Photograph: Getty Images
Two American B-1B heavy bombers joined large-scale combat drills over South Korea on Thursday amid warnings from North Korea that the exercises and US threats have made the outbreak of war “an established fact.”
The annual US-South Korean “Vigilant Ace” exercises feature 230 aircraft, including some of the most advanced US stealth warplanes. They come a week after North Korea tested its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) to date, which it says can reach all of the United States.
North Korea’s foreign ministry blamed the drills and “confrontational warmongering” by US officials for making war inevitable.
“The remaining question now is: when will the war break out?” it said in a statement carried by North Korea’s official KCNA news agency. “We do not wish for a war but shall not hide from it.”
China, North Korea’s neighbour and lone major ally, again urged calm and said war was not the answer, while Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said North Korea wanted direct talks with the United States to seek guarantees on its security, something Moscow was ready to facilitate.
“We hope all relevant parties can maintain calm and restraint and take steps to alleviate tensions and not provoke each other,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.
Mr Lavrov said he had passed on Pyongyang’s desire for direct talks to US secretary of state Rex Tillerson when the two met on the sidelines of a conference in Vienna on Thursday.
“We know that North Korea wants above all to talk to the United States about guarantees for its security. We are ready . . . to take part in facilitating such negotiations,” Interfax news agency quoted Lavrov as saying.
Washington has said it remains open to talks if North Korea demonstrates it is serious about giving up its nuclear weapons, but that its recent activities showed it was not.
Tensions have risen markedly in recent months after repeated North Korean missile tests in defiance of UN sanctions and the detonation of what Pyongyang said was a hydrogen bomb on September 3rd.
North Korea’s latest missile test prompted a US warning that North Korea’s leadership would be “utterly destroyed” if war were to break out.
On Wednesday, a US B-1B bomber flew from the US Pacific territory of Guam to join the exercises, which will run until Friday.
In September, B-1Bs were among a formation of US military aircraft that flew further north along North Korea’s coast than at any time in the past 17 years, prompting Pyongyang’s foreign minister to warn that US bombers could be shot down even if they did not enter North Korean airspace.
Yang Uk, a senior fellow at the Korea Defence and Security Forum, said that while B-1Bs carried no nuclear weapons, they would be key to any strike targeting major North Korean facilities.
“B1-B bombers have been regularly dispatched to the Korean peninsula over the past years; however, it seems that the US Air Force might have enhanced its training to better prepare for actual warfare,” he said. “That’s why North Korea has been making such a big deal when B1-B bombers are flying overhead.”
US national security adviser HR McMaster said at the weekend that the possibility of war with North Korea was “increasing every day”. He said US president Donald Trump was prepared to take action against North Korea but was working to convince China, Russia and other nations to put exert further pressure on Pyongyang to give up its weapons programmes.
North Korea’s foreign ministry accused high-level US politicians of “showing alarming signs by making bellicose remarks one after another”, said KCNA.
“These confrontational war-mongering remarks cannot be interpreted in any other way but as a warning to us to be prepared for a war on the Korean peninsula,” it said.