SEOUL, South Korea — The U.S. military Thursday carried out a rare long-range mission over the Korean Peninsula, sending two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers on a practice bombing sortie over South Korea, underscoring U.S. commitment to defend its ally amid rising tensions with North Korea.
The two B-2 Spirit bombers showed the United States’ ability to “provide extended deterrence to our allies in the Asia-Pacific region” and to “conduct long-range, precision strikes quickly and at will,” the U.S. command in the South Korean capital, Seoul, said in a statement.
The last time B-2s flew over South Korea was in 2000, but in that exercise the bombers flew from runways on the Pacific island base of Guam. This mission was the first time the bat-winged B-2s were launched toward the Korean Peninsula on a nonstop, round-trip mission from the United States.
The bombers, which flew from an air base in Missouri, dropped inert munitions, not live explosives, on a range off South Korea’s coast.
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Thursday’s statement follows an earlier U.S. announcement that nuclear-capable B-52 bombers participated in the joint military drills.
While the mock bombing run was part of a previously planned joint exercise between South Korean and U.S. forces, it came at a time of rising rhetorical tension with the North.
At a Pentagon news conference Thursday, senior officials made clear the mission was intended to serve as a deterrent to North Korea — and to reassure South Korea and Japan, both allies.
“The reaction to the B-2 that we’re most concerned about is not necessarily the reaction it might elicit in North Korea, but rather among our Japanese and Korean allies,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Those exercises are mostly to assure our allies that they can count on us to be prepared and to help them deter conflict.”
The bombing run drew quick response from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who said Friday in Pyongyang, the capital, that his rocket forces were ready “to settle accounts with the U.S.”
He met with his senior generals, state media reported, signed a rocket-preparation plan and ordered his forces on standby to strike the U.S. mainland, South Korea, Guam and Hawaii.
Many analysts say they’ve seen no evidence that the North’s missiles can hit the U.S. mainland. But it has capable short- and midrange missiles, and Seoul is only a short drive from the heavily armed border separating the Koreas.
After the U.S. carpet-bombing during the 1950-53 Korean War, North Korea remains particularly sensitive about U.S. bombers.
It keeps most of its key military installations underground, and its war cries typically reach a frenetic pitch when U.S. bombers fly over South Korea during military exercises. The resulting fear and anti-American sentiment is used by the government to make its people rally behind the North’s “military-first” leadership.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.