The South Korean and US forces flew 20 fighter planes over South Korea’s western sea on Tuesday in a show of force as a top US official warned of retaliation if North Korea conducts its first nuclear test in almost five years.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff of South Korea claimed the air show featured 16 South Korean planes, including F-35A stealth fighters, and four American F-16 fighter jets, and was intended to demonstrate their capacity to respond quickly to North Korean provocations.
The flight came a day after the allies launched eight surface-to-surface missiles into South Korea’s eastern waters to match North Korea’s weekend missile display, which launched the same number of missiles from multiple locations on Sunday in what was likely the country’s largest single-day testing event.
According to US and South Korean sources, North Korea is almost ready to perform another nuclear test at its nuclear testing site in the northeastern town of Punggye-ri. In September 2017, it claimed to have exploded a thermonuclear bomb built for its intercontinental ballistic missiles in its most recent test, and seventh overall.
If the North conducts another nuclear test, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman warned of a “rapid and muscular” reaction. Sherman was in Seoul to discuss the stalemate with South Korean and Japanese partners.
While the Biden administration has promised to press for further international penalties if North Korea continues with its nuclear test, the prospects for serious new restrictions are uncertain, given the United Nations Security Council’s split.
“Any nuclear test would be in direct contravention of United Nations Security Council resolutions.” Following a meeting with South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Cho Hyun-dong, Sherman stated, “There will be a fast and severe response to such a test.”
“We continue to call on Pyongyang to end its disruptive and aggressive actions and pursue dialogue,” she added.
On Wednesday, Sherman and Cho will meet with Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Mori Takeo to discuss the North Korean nuclear problem in a trilateral meeting.
North Korea’s launches on Sunday continued a year of provocative weapons tests, which included the country’s first ICBM displays since 2017.
Despite limited resources, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has increased his weapons development since taking office in 2011. North Korea might claim the capacity to create tiny bombs that could be grouped on a multiwarhead ICBM or fitted on short-range missiles that could reach South Korea and Japan with its next test, experts warn.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s director general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, stated Monday that there are signs that one of the Punggye-ri testing ground’s passageways has been reopened, presumably in preparation for a nuclear test.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington hours before Sherman’s meeting in Seoul that the US remained concerned that North Korea may conduct its seventh nuclear test “in the near days.”
In recent months, the Biden administration’s retaliation for North Korea’s nuclear tests has been restricted to mostly symbolic unilateral penalties. Russia and China blocked a resolution sponsored by the United States that would have placed new penalties on North Korea for its prior missile launches on May 25.
“We have called on members of the international community, particularly the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council, to be responsible stakeholders in the United Nations Security Council as the preeminent forum for addressing threats to international peace and security,” Price said.
“Unilateral acts would never be the most appealing or even the most effective reaction,” he said. “This is especially true because we are happy to have close friends in the shape of Japan and the ROK,” he said, referring to South Korea’s formal name.
The launches on Sunday had elicited no response from North Korean state media. They came after the United States’ aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan completed a three-day naval drill with South Korea in the Philippine Sea on Saturday, reportedly the first joint drill involving a carrier since November 2017, as the two countries work to improve their defense exercises in the face of North Korean threats.
North Korea has long denounced the partners’ joint military exercises as invasion preparations, countering with short-range missile tests in 2016 and 2017 that simulated nuclear strikes on South Korean ports and US military bases in Japan.
Following the most recent North Korean launches, the US held separate combined missile drills with Japan and South Korea, ostensibly to demonstrate their reaction capacity.
Nuclear discussions between Washington and Pyongyang have been stuck since 2019 due to disputes over the relaxation of severe US-led sanctions in exchange for Pyongyang’s disarmament efforts. Despite rising economic hardships, Kim has increased his testing activities and has demonstrated no readiness to totally abandon an arsenal that he perceives as his only chance of survival.
Experts believe his government has refused the Biden administration’s overtures for open-ended discussions so far and is plainly bent on transforming the moribund denuclearization talks into a reciprocal arms-reduction process.
A COVID-19 epidemic, which has grown over his mainly unvaccinated population of 26 million people due to a lack of public health instruments, hasn’t halted Kim’s pressure campaign. Although the North has so far rebuffed offers of assistance from the United States and South Korea, there are hints that it has received some vaccinations from its ally China.
Park Sang-hak, a South Korean activist and North Korean defector who has been flying anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets across the border for years, claimed his organization sent 20 balloons containing medication, masks, and vitamin tablets to help North Korean residents on Tuesday.