South Korea and the US have begun their biggest ever air force drill, mobilising hundreds of warplanes including two dozen Stealth bombers, just a week after North Korea tested its most powerful missile to date.
The five-day air combat exercise, known as Vigilant ACE involves 230 warplanes and about 12,000 personnel and will include simulated precision strikes on mock North Korean nuclear and missile targets, the US Seventh Air Force said in a statement.
The joint drill prompted an angry reaction from North Korea, which said the manoeuvres would bring the crisis to the "brink of nuclear war" and described US leader Donald Trump as "insane".
The exercise is an annual event but this year is on a larger scale than before, against a background of heightened tensions in the region following last week’s test of a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
North Korea subsequently declared the completion of its “nuclear force.” Experts believe the missile can travel 13,000 km, putting the mainland US within range.
The stealth aircraft include six US Air Force F-22 Raptors and six F-35As, while another 12 F-35Bs flown by the US Marine Corps will join the exercise from Japan. Other aircraft include two B-1B Lancer bombers, six EA-18G Growler electronic warfare jets, and many F-15C and F-16 fighter jets.
North Korea says its nuclear weapons programme is prompted by a need to defend itself against US aggression.
"Such a drill is a dangerous provocation as it is driving the tension on the Korean peninsula to the brink of a nuclear war," ran a commentary in the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the ruling Workers Party.
“The US and the South Korean puppet forces are so foolish as to run amok with such stealth fighters,” it said.
A South Korean official denied that drill was about attacking North Korea.
“The air force drill is an annual joint military exercise among the allies of a defensive nature,” Baik Tae-hyun, spokesman at the Ministry of Unification, told a news briefing.
China's foreign minister Wang Yi said it was "regrettable" that tensions had risen on the Korean peninsula after a period of relative calm, and he said China was open to solutions but dialogue was key.
China is North Korea’s ally but the relationship has grown somewhat strained over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, which Beijing opposes as it causes instability in the region.
An editorial in the Global Times newspaper, which gives insights into the thinking of China’s leadership, rounded on the US for badgering China into doing more to rein in North Korea.
"Washington has placed China in a precarious situation by asking for more than what was originally expected by the UN Security Council regarding the previous round of North Korea sanctions," it said in its English-language edition. "China has always carried out UN security measures, however, it will refuse extra responsibilities stemming from both sides," it said.
The paper also said tougher sanctions would have no effect, because confidence is running high in Pyongyang after the successful launch, and the US should consider taking North Korea’s national security requests seriously.
– (Additional reporting: agencies)