U.S. flies nuclear-capable bombers amid tensions with N. Korea

FILE - In this photo provided by South Korean Defense Ministry, a U.S. B-52 bomber, C-17, and U.S. Air Force F-22 fighter jets fly over the Korean Peninsula during a joint air drill in South Korea on Dec. 20, 2022. The United States flew nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to the Korean Peninsula again on Wednesday, April 5, 2023, in a show of strength against North Korea amid concerns that the North might conduct a nuclear test. (South Korean Defense Ministry via AP, File)
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Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The United States flew nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to the Korean Peninsula again on Wednesday in a show of strength against North Korea amid concerns that the North might conduct a nuclear test.

The long-range bombers took part in joint aerial drills with U.S. and South Korean fighter jets over the Korean Peninsula, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said. It said it was the first deployment of U.S. B-52 bombers to the peninsula in a month.

The drills “show the strong resolve of the (South) Korea-U.S. alliance and its perfect readiness to respond to any provocation by North Korea swiftly and overwhelmingly,” Lt. Gen. Park Ha Sik, commander of the South Korean air force operation command, said in a statement.

The South Korean and U.S. militaries have been expanding their combined military drills in response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.

The allies conducted their biggest field exercises in five years and computer simulations last month. The U.S. also sent the nuclear-powered USS Nimitz aircraft carrier for joint naval training with South Korea last week and U.S.-South Korea-Japan anti-submarine drills this week.

North Korea sees such drills as provocations that show its rivals’ intention of attacking the North. A day after the last flight by a B-52 bomber to the peninsula on March 6, Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, warned that her country was ready to take “quick, overwhelming action” against the United States and South Korea.

North Korea has since test-launched a series of nuclear-capable weapons designed to attack South Korea and the United States. They included the North’s longest-range Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile, a developmental nuclear-capable underwater drone and cruise missiles fired from a submarine.

Last week, North Korea unveiled a new battlefield nuclear warhead to fit on short-range weapons targeting South Korea. That touched off speculation that it may want to carry out its first nuclear test since 2017 because its last two nuclear test detonations happened after it disclosed other new warheads. If conducted, it would be the North’s seventh nuclear weapons test.

Whether North Korea has functioning nuclear-armed missiles remains a subject of debate. Some experts say a nuclear detonation would be aimed at testing a miniaturized warhead for short-range missiles because the country’s recent weapons tests have focused more on weapons that place key military installations in South Korea, including U.S. military bases there, within striking distance.

Kim Jong Un has said North Korea won’t return to denuclearization talks with the U.S. unless Washington drops hostile polices toward the North, an apparent reference to its joint military drills with South Korea and U.S.-led international economic sanctions. Some observers say Kim wants to use his growing weapons arsenal to pressure Washington to accept it as a nuclear power and lift the sanctions.

On Friday, the chief nuclear envoys of South Korea, the United States and Japan are to meet in Seoul to discuss how to respond to tensions caused by North Korea’s recent weapons tests, according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry.

During a policy meeting Wednesday, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said security cooperation among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo is crucial in dealing with North Korean nuclear threats and other challenges. He said South Korea must bolster its preemptive strike, missile defense and retaliatory attack capabilities while strengthening the deterrence capacity of the South Korea-U.S. alliance.