The two supersonic B-1B Lancer bombers were deployed amid rising tensions over North Korea's pursuit of its nuclear and missile programmes in defiance of U.N. sanctions and pressure from the United States.
The flight of the two bombers on Monday came as U.S. President Donald Trump said he would be "honoured" to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the right circumstances, and as his CIA director landed in South Korea for talks.
South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun told a briefing in Seoul that Monday's joint drill was conducted to deter provocations by the North.
North Korea said the bombers conducted "a nuclear bomb dropping drill against major objects" in its territory at a time when Trump and "other U.S. warmongers are crying out for making a preemptive nuclear strike" on the North.
"The reckless military provocation is pushing the situation on the Korean peninsula closer to the brink of nuclear war," the North's official KCNA news agency said on Tuesday.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have been high for weeks, driven by concerns that the North might conduct its sixth nuclear test in defiance of pressure from the United States and Pyongyang's sole major ally, China.
The U.S. military's THAAD anti-missile defence system has reached initial operational capacity in South Korea, U.S. officials told Reuters, although they cautioned that it would not be fully operational for some months.
China has repeatedly expressed its opposition to the system, whose powerful radar it fears could reach inside Chinese territory. Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang again denounced THAAD on Tuesday.
"We will resolutely take necessary measures to defend our interests," Geng said, without elaborating.
Asked about Trump's suggestion he could meet Kim, Geng said China had noted U.S. comments that it wanted to use peaceful means to resolve the issue. Trump has been recently been full of praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping's efforts to rein in its neighbour.
"China has always believed that using peaceful means via dialogue and consultation to resolve the peninsula's nuclear issue is the only realistic, feasible means to achieve denuclearization of the peninsula and maintain peace and stability there, and is the only correct choice," Geng told a daily news briefing.
It was widely feared North Korea could conduct its sixth nuclear test on or around April 15 to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the North's founding leader, Kim Il Sung, or on April 25 to coincide with the 85th anniversary of the foundation of its Korean People's Army.
The North has conducted such tests or missile launches to mark significant events in the past.
Instead, North Korea conducted an annual military parade, featuring a display of missiles on April 15 and then a large, live-fire artillery drill 10 days later.
Acting South Korean president Hwang Kyo-ahn called for stronger vigilance because of continuing provocation by North Korea and for countries such as China to increase pressure on the North.
The U.S. military said Mike Pompeo, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, visited South Korea and conducted detailed security discussions with his South Korean counterpart Lee Byung-ho and also visited Yeonpyeong island, which was bombed by North Korea in 2010.
Trump drew criticism in Washington on Monday when he said he would be "honoured" to meet North Korea's young leader.
"If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honoured to do it," Trump told Bloomberg News.
Trump did not say what conditions would be needed for such a meeting to occur or when it could happen.
"Clearly conditions are not there right now," White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.
Trump warned in an interview with Reuters on Thursday that a "major, major conflict" with North Korea was possible, while China said last week the situation on the Korean peninsula could escalate or slip out of control.
In a show of force, the United States has already sent an aircraft carrier strike group, led by the USS Carl Vinson, to waters off the Korean peninsula to conduct drills with South Korea and Japan.
North Korea test-launched a missile on Saturday that appeared to have failed within minutes, its fourth successive failed launch since March. It has conducted two nuclear tests and a series of missile-related activities at an unprecedented pace since the beginning of last year.
The North is technically still at war with the South after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a treaty, and regularly threatens to destroy the United States, Japan and South Korea.
|A rocket is carried by a military vehicle during a military parade in Pyongyang. REUTERS/Bobby Yip|
Trump Says He’d Meet With Kim Jong Un Under Right Circumstances
U.S. President Donald Trump said he would meet with Kim Jong Un amid heightened tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program if the circumstances were right.
“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it,” Trump said Monday in an Oval Office interview with Bloomberg News. “If it’s under the, again, under the right circumstances. But I would do that.”
The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, and as recently as last week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. would negotiate with Kim’s regime only if it made credible steps toward giving up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
“Most political people would never say that,” Trump said of his willingness to meet with the reclusive Kim, “but I’m telling you under the right circumstances I would meet with him. We have breaking news.”
Asked later about Trump’s comments, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that “clearly conditions are not there right now” for a meeting. He said “we’ve got to see their provocative behavior ratcheted down.”
North Korea has become the most urgent national security threat and foreign policy issue facing Trump as his first 100 days in office passed. Kim’s regime has continued developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in defiance of international condemnation and sanctions. Military analysts have said North Korea is on course to develop a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. mainland as soon as 2020, during Trump’s term in office.
On Tuesday, South Korea said a U.S. missile shield deployed in the country against China’s objections is now technically ready for operations. South Korea’s Defense Ministry had said previously it expected the system to be fully operational by the end of the year.
The government in Seoul on Tuesday played down the chance of a near-term meeting between Trump and Kim.
The South Korean and U.S. stance on Pyongyang remains the same, Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck said at a briefing. "The door for dialogue is open" if Pyongyang decides to go in the "right direction" of denuclearization. China Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular briefing that North Korea and the U.S. should both show good faith, and that talks were the best option to resolving the tension.
Even if the conditions were right, from the U.S. perspective, a meeting would be unlikely. Kim has not met any major world leader since taking charge after his father’s death in late 2011 and hasn’t left his isolated country. His nuclear program gives him prestige at home. And leaving North Korea, even for a short period, could expose him to the risk of a coup by opponents in the military or Pyongyang’s elite, analysts say.
North Korea’s official news agency on Tuesday released a commentary from its Minju Joson newspaper saying the U.S. is “seriously mistaken” if it thinks the regime will compromise.
“The Trump administration would be well advised to learn how humbly the preceding administrations were put in the awkward position of lowering the fist of pressure they had raised before the DPRK,” the commentary said, using the formal initials for North Korea’s name.
Kim would need to be willing to discuss detailed and verifiable steps for denuclearization, said Joseph DeTrani, a former senior adviser to the U.S. director of national intelligence who helped broker a 2005 agreement on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
“Not only would they need to show a willingness to discuss denuclearization, but you’d need to stop nuclearization,” he said. “No one would want to sit down for talks while they are still launching missiles and having nuclear tests.”
Kim’s predecessors weren’t much more accessible or cooperative. Over more than two decades, six-nation talks, bilateral negotiations, food aid and UN sanctions have all failed to deter the Kim dynasty’s quest for a nuclear arsenal. That has left the Trump administration relying increasingly on China, North Korea’s neighbor and top trading partner, to exert pressure on the regime.
While Trump didn’t spell out what conditions would have to be met for him to sit down with Kim, Evans Revere, a former U.S. diplomat in South Korea, said “it’s almost impossible to imagine North Korea meeting the conditions that would allow such a meeting to occur.”
“North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty when it was caught cheating, violated every one of the denuclearization commitments it made, and now threatens the United States and its allies with nuclear weapons,” Revere, a senior adviser at the Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington, said in an email. “That’s hardly the basis for a presidential meeting with Kim Jong Un.”
Tensions have escalated since Trump vowed in January that he wouldn’t let North Korea develop a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the U.S., and North Korea has labeled American military moves in the region as acts of “intimidation and blackmail.” North Korea has continued to test missiles this year after carrying out two nuclear tests last year.
While dispatching an aircraft carrier group and a submarine to the region, the Trump administration has emphasized the use of economic sanctions and diplomacy to persuade North Korea to curtail its nuclear program. Trump has said he’s encouraged by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to defuse the situation. Trump and Xi met last month at the U.S. president’s private club in Florida and have talked several times since.
Then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was the last top U.S. official to meet with a North Korean leader. She discussed the country’s nuclear program with Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, in 2000. At the time, she was the most senior official to visit years since the Korean War.
Trump says he ‘would be honoured’ to meet N Korea’s Kim Jong Un
Donald Trump said on Monday he would be “honoured” to meet Kim Jong Un under the right circumstances, an offer welcomed by Beijing amid soaring tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
The US president’s comments contrast with his hardline stance on the North Korean leader — as well as Friday’s call from Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, for the UN to impose “painful sanctions” on Pyongyang to deter its nuclear programme. A weekend ballistic missile test prompted Mr Trump to declare that North Korea had “disrespected” Beijing.
“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honoured to do it,” Mr Trump told Bloomberg on Monday. “Most political people would never say that but I’m telling you under the right circumstances I would meet with him.” Mr Trump described Mr Kim as a “pretty smart cookie” to CBS the previous day.
Mr Trump did not stipulate his conditions but since taking charge in 2011, Mr Kim has neither met a foreign leader nor left his country. Mr Trump would be unlikely to visit North Korea and has previously said he would invite Mr Kim to the US, though not for a state dinner.
North Korea has quickly become Mr Trump’s most pressing foreign policy issue. His predecessor Barack Obama, who also said during his 2008 election campaign that he would be prepared to meet Mr Kim, warned Mr Trump of the North Korean threat during their handover talks.
Beijing on Tuesday welcomed Mr Trump’s comments, calling on the two countries to “meet each other halfway”. Geng Shuang, the foreign ministry spokesman, reiterated Beijing’s position that “the only practical and feasible way to realise the de-nuclearisation of the peninsula is to solve the issue through dialogue, negotiations and in peaceful ways”.
Tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, which have no diplomatic relations, are regularly heightened at this time of year as North Korea celebrates several patriotic anniversaries and the US conducts military exercises in the area. In recent weeks, however, the simmering animosity has threatened to escalate into conflict.
On Tuesday US forces in South Korea put into operation a missile shield that has irked both Pyongyang and Beijing, and now threatens to undermine the US alliance with Seoul. From Beijing, Mr Geng urged the two countries to “halt the process immediately”.
Mr Trump sparked an unusual backlash in the South Korean capital last week when he said he would demand $1bn from Seoul for the deployment, which is widely believed to enhance US strategic interests in the region.
Concerns about the US president in South Korea were already high after Mr Trump raised the prospect of unilateral military strikes on North Korea, telling the Financial Times that if China will not intervene to stem its neighbour’s nuclear ambitions then “we will”.
Pyongyang has accused the US of “intimidation and blackmail”. Western experts believe North Korea is rapidly developing intercontinental ballistic missiles that may one day be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead as far as the US.
The US president has often delighted in making overtures to strongman rulers, whether extending friendship to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, inviting Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte to visit or, during his campaign last year, saying he would like to eat a hamburger with North Korea’s supreme leader.
Observers struggled to determine whether Mr Trump’s comments were a throwaway remark, a serious attempt to defuse dangerous tensions or something in between.
Jenny Town, North Korea programme manager at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said that while North Korea “tends to be better behaved when in a negotiation versus when they’re not”, Mr Trump’s suggestion of a meeting was unlikely to reduce tensions.
“I don’t even think it was a productive approach,” she said, arguing for greater consistency from the US administration. “In the usual call-and-response [in US-North Korea relations] this year, the X factor has been Trump rhetoric feeding in and being more threatening.”