North Korea’s fourth nuclear test has quickly escalated into the most high-profile standoff with the belligerent, brainwashed country in three years.
The U.S. flew a B-52 bomber, which is capable of carrying nuclear weapons, from Guam for a low-level flight in the vicinity of Osan, South Korea, on Sunday, accompanied by South Korean F-15 and U.S. F-16 fighter jets. It later returned to base. The show of force, four days after North Korea announced it had conducted its fourth nuclear test, echoed a similar flight the last time the North carried out an underground nuclear blast in 2013.
“This was a demonstration of the ironclad U.S. commitment to our allies in South Korea, in Japan, and to the defense of the American homeland,” Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., commander U.S. Pacific Command said in a statement. “North Korea’s nuclear test is a blatant violation of its international obligations. U.S. joint military forces in the Indo-Asia-Pacific will continue to work with all of our regional allies and partners to maintain stability and security.”
U.S. officials called the 2013 crisis the most intense — and dangerous — period on the peninsula in decades, with the North threatening to turn Seoul and major U.S. cities, including Washington, into seas of fire. South Korean troops already are on the highest alert, and both sides have resumed blasting propaganda on loudspeakers across the Demilitarized Zone.
The North’s claim Wednesday that it tested a hydrogen bomb, which is potentially much more powerful than its previous plutonium or enriched uranium weapons, has dramatically raised the stakes in the rocky effort to convince Pyongyang to end its nuclear program. Experts have strongly questioned Pyongyang’s boast, which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un repeated Sunday.
“It is the legitimate right of a sovereign state and a fair action that nobody can criticize,” the North’s Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim as saying during a tour of the Armed Forces Ministry.
Despite its repeated threats, the North is claiming that it is building bombs — and missiles to carry them as far as the U.S. mainland — solely as a self-defense measure, saying the downfalls of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi were due to dropping their pursuit of nuclear weapons.
“History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasured sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression,” a KCNA editorial said Friday, adding that the “law of the jungle” prevails in the global landscape, with only the strongest surviving.
The last time the U.S. sent a nuclear-capable bomber over the area, the crisis steadily fizzled. But given how fast this standoff has developed, that seems unlikely. Analysts are predicting the North may soon test a revamped version of a rocket it successfully tested in December 2012.
The remodeled rocket was shown off during a recent parade of military hardware, and experts said it appeared better designed to survive re-entry into the atmosphere and to deliver a nuclear warhead.
Another possibility is a small-scale attack. The North has previously shelled a South Korean island near their maritime border and sunk a South Korean naval ship.
It’s unclear why the North has acted now. It has a history of using brinksmanship to wring aid and concessions from the West but has not been making demands recently other than to be accepted as a nuclear state, which the U.S. has said it will never do.
Kim reportedly has not been able to completely consolidate power since taking over following his father’s death, and he has carried out bloody purges of top officials as a clear warning against any would-be challenges to his rule.
The test also could be linked to Kim’s birthday last Friday, and the first ruling workers’ party congress planned for May.