COLUMBUS, South Korea — Saturday, North Korea added to its recent onslaught of weapons tests by launching four ballistic missiles into the sea, while the United States flew two supersonic bombers over South Korea in a dueling display of military strength that highlighted the region’s escalating tensions.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff of South Korea reported that four short-range missiles launched from a western coastal region about noon traveled approximately 130 kilometers (80 miles) 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 prompted evacuation alerts in northern Japan, and has flown a large number of warplanes inside its territory in response to a massive joint aerial exercise between the United States and South Korea.
The South Korean military reported that two B-1B bombers trained with four U.S. F-16 fighter planes and four South Korean F-35s fighters on Saturday, the final day of the “Vigilant Storm” joint air force exercises. It represented the first deployment of bombers to the Korean Peninsula since December 2017. Approximately 240 warplanes, including modern F-35 fighter fighters from both countries, participated in the drill.
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry defined the country’s military moves this week as a legitimate response to the drill, which it termed as a demonstration of “military confrontation hysteria” on the part of the United States. It stated that North Korea will respond with “the most severe countermeasures” to any attempts by “hostile forces” to violate its sovereignty or security interests.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff of South Korea stated that the participation of the B-1Bs in the joint exercises demonstrated the allies’ readiness to “sternly respond” to North Korean provocations and the U.S. commitment to defend its ally with the full spectrum of its military capabilities, including nuclear.
During previous instances of tension with North Korea, B-1B flyovers were a common display of power. In 2017, the planes made their last appearance in the region during another provocative round of North Korean weapons demonstrations. In recent years, however, the United States and South Korea ceased their large-scale drills in favor of the former Trump administration’s diplomatic efforts with North Korea and the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, the allies restarted their large-scale training after North Korea accelerated its nuclear testing to a record pace, using a rift in the United Nations Security Council over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity to further its arms development.
North Korea despises such close-range exhibitions of American military force. The North has continued to refer to the B-1B as a “nuclear strategic bomber” despite the mid-1990s change to conventional weapons.
In reaction to a succession of North Korean ballistic missile launches on Thursday, including an intercontinental ballistic missile that sparked evacuation alerts and delayed trains in northern Japan, the allies have decided to extend Vigilant Storm until Saturday.
The North launched the most missiles in a single day on Wednesday, when it blasted more than 20. North Korean senior military officer Pak Jong Chon delivered a veiled threat of a nuclear conflict with the United States and South Korea for their joint drills, which the North claims are preparations for an invasion.
Friday, South Korea scrambled over 80 military aircraft after tracking approximately 180 North Korean military flights inside North Korean territory. The Joint Chiefs of Staff of the South reported that North Korean airplanes were spotted in several inland regions and near the country’s eastern and western beaches, but did not approach the Koreas’ border. From 1 to 5 p.m., the South Korean military identified approximately 180 flight traces, although it was unclear how many North Korean jets were engaged or whether any may have flown more than once.
In a statement attributed to an unnamed representative on Friday, the North Korean Foreign Ministry claimed that the United States and South Korea’s military exercises had created a “very unstable climate” in the region. It accused the United States of rallying its allies in a campaign using sanctions and military threats to coerce North Korea to disarm unilaterally.
“The prolonged provocation will inevitably be met with sustained countermeasures,” stated the statement.
This year, North Korea has launched scores of ballistic missiles, including multiple intercontinental ballistic missiles and an intermediate-range missile that flew over Japan. There are indicators that North Korea may conduct its first nuclear test since 2017 in the next weeks, according to South Korean officials. According to experts, North Korea is aiming to coerce the United States into accepting it as a nuclear state and is negotiating economic and security concessions from a strong position.