The United States and its Asian allies on Tuesday flew dozens of fighter jets over the waters around the Korean peninsula in a show of force as their diplomats discussed a coordinated response to a possible impending North Korean nuclear test.
The flights came as US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman traveled to Seoul to meet with South Korea and Japanese officials about the growing North Korean threat and warned of a “quick and vigorous” counter-reaction if the north continues with a nuclear test explosion. which would be the first in nearly five years.
If staged, the test could represent another leap in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s goal to build an arsenal that could pose a viable threat to regional US allies and the US homeland.
That would escalate a pressure campaign aimed at forcing the United States to accept North Korea as a nuclear power and negotiate economic and security concessions from a strong position.
While the Biden administration has vowed to push for additional international sanctions if North Korea conducts a nuclear test, the prospects for robust sanctions are unclear due to divisions among permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
“Any nuclear test would violate UN Security Council resolutions. There would be a swift and strong response to such a test,” Sherman said after meeting South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Cho Hyun-dong .
“We continue to urge Pyongyang to cease its destabilizing and provocative activities and choose the path of diplomacy.”
Sherman and Cho are planning a three-way meeting with Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Mori Takeo on Wednesday about the North Korean nuclear issue.
Four US F-16 fighter jets expanded their combined military force and flew 16 South Korean aircraft – including F-35A stealth fighters – in formation over the waters off South Korea’s eastern coast in an exercise designed to demonstrate ability to respond quickly to North Korean provocations, South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said.
The United States and Japan conducted a separate exercise involving six aircraft — four Japanese F-15 fighters and two American F-16s — over waters between the Korean peninsula and Japan, Japan’s defense ministry said.
The flights came a day after U.S. and South Korean forces fired eight surface-to-surface missiles into South Korea’s eastern waters to match a weekend missile display by North Korea, which fired the same number of weapons on Sunday from multiple locations in South Korea. which was probably his destination. largest one-day testing event.
North Korea has conducted 18 rounds of missile launches in 2022 alone — including its first intercontinental ballistic missile demonstrations since 2017 — taking advantage of a favorable environment to advance weapons development, effectively crippling the Security Council by the Russian war. against Ukraine.
North Korea may soon be raising the bar as US and South Korean officials say it is nearly ready to carry out another detonation at its nuclear testing site in the northeastern city of Punggye-ri. Its last such test and sixth overall was in September 2017, when it claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear bomb designed for its ICBMs.
Since coming to power in 2011, Kim has accelerated nuclear weapons development despite limited resources, and has shown no willingness to completely give up an arsenal he considers his strongest guarantee of survival.
Experts say North Korea’s next nuclear test could lay claim to the ability to build small bombs that can be placed on a multi-warhead ICBM or short-range missiles that can reach South Korea and Japan.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Monday there is evidence that one of the passageways at the Punggye-ri test site has reopened, possibly in preparation for a nuclear test.
Hours before Sherman’s meeting in Seoul, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington that the United States believes North Korea could undergo its seventh test “in the coming days.”
The Biden administration’s punitive actions over North Korea’s recent weapons tests have been limited to largely symbolic unilateral sanctions. Russia and China vetoed a US-backed Security Council resolution that North Korea would have imposed additional sanctions over previous ballistic tests on May 25.
“We have called on members of the international community, especially members of the UN Security Council’s Permanent Five, to be responsible stakeholders in the UN Security Council as a pre-eminent forum for addressing threats to international peace and security,” said Price.
“Unilateral actions will never be the most attractive or even the most effective response, and that is especially the case because we are delighted to have close allies in the form of Japan and the ROK,” he said, referring to the South Korean government. official name, the Republic of Korea.
North Korea’s state media has not yet commented on Sunday’s launches. They came after US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan completed a three-day naval exercise with South Korea in the Philippine Sea on Saturday, apparently their first joint exercise involving an aircraft carrier since November 2017, as the countries upgrade their facial defense exercises. of increasing North Korean threats.
North Korea has long condemned the Allies’ combined military exercises as invasion rehearsals and has often countered with its own missile exercises, including launches in 2016 and 2017 that simulated nuclear strikes on South Korean ports and US military facilities in Japan.
Nuclear talks between the US and North Korea have stalled since 2019 amid disagreements over an easing of crippling US-led sanctions in return for North Korean disarmament moves.
Kim’s government has so far rejected the Biden administration’s offers for open negotiations and clearly intends to turn the lingering denuclearization negotiations into a mutual arms reduction process, experts say.
Kim’s press campaign has not been slowed by a COVID-19 outbreak that is spreading across his largely unvaccinated population of 26 million amid a lack of public health resources. North Korea has so far turned down US and South Korean aid offers, but evidence suggests it has received at least some vaccines from ally China.
South Korean activist Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector who has been distributing anti-Pyongyang propaganda pamphlets across the border for years, said his group flew 20 balloons with medicines, masks and vitamin pills to help North Korean citizens on Tuesday. help out.