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N. Korea warns war is inevitable as US, S. Korea wind down air drills

Two U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II aircraft from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, drop munitions at the Pilsung Range, South Korea on Aug. 31, 2017.

ALEX ECHOLS/U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 6, 2017

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea warned that war has become “an established fact” as it lashed out Thursday against U.S. bombing drills and recent tough talk by Trump administration officials.

The hardline rhetoric came as a former American diplomat representing the United Nations met with North Korea’s foreign minister in the highest-level U.N. visit to Pyongyang since 2010.

The twin developments underscore the delicate balance in pursuing a diplomatic resolution to the worst crisis to face the Korean Peninsula in decades, even as President Donald Trump’s administration and the North trade threats of military action.

The Air Force also sent a supersonic bomber to join state-of-the-art fighter jets Wednesday in a show of force during joint war games with South Korea.

The B-1B Lancer, which used to be nuclear capable but has been converted to carry conventional weapons, took part in a simulated bombing drill, South Korean officials said.

Fox News reported that two bombers were supposed to be flying together during the sortie, as has been the case in the past. But the second reported a maintenance issue while taxiing to the runway for takeoff, an Air Force officer told Fox on condition of anonymity.

Pacific Air Forces did not immediately reply to a request for comment about the report.

The United States also sent F-22 Raptors and F-35s for the first time to join more than 200 other war planes in the annual exercise known as Vigilant Ace, which ends Friday.

A North Korean foreign ministry official was quoted as saying the military drills and "bellicose remarks" by U.S. officials “cannot be interpreted in any other way but as a warning to us to be prepared for a war on the Korean peninsula.”

The reclusive communist state broke more than two months of relative calm last month when it test-fired its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile into the sea.

It also sent two intermediate-range missiles soaring over Japan and conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test earlier this year, prompting officials to worry it’s making faster-than-expected progress toward its goal of developing a nuclear weapon that could reach the U.S. mainland.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said over the weekend that the North’s pursuit of long-range nuclear capabilities poses the “greatest immediate threat” to the United States.

He said the potential for military conflict is “increasing every day, which means that we’re in a race.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham made similar statements on Sunday and called for the evacuation of U.S. military families to get them out of “harm’s way.” The Pentagon said it has no plans to do so.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo also said Saturday that U.S. intelligence agencies believe North Korean leader Kim Jong Un doesn't have a good idea about how tenuous his situation is domestically and internationally.

North Korea usually issues bellicose statements after what it sees as provocations by the United States. But Trump and senior administration officials have increasingly matched its tone as tensions have risen to the highest level in decades.

"The large-scale nuclear war exercises conducted by the U.S. in succession are creating [a] touch-and-go situation on the Korean peninsula and [a] series of violent war remarks coming from the U.S. high-level politicians amid such circumstances have made an outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula an established fact,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency quoted the official as saying.

“The remaining question now is: when will the war break out," the spokesman said.

The official also reiterated North Korea’s insistence that its nuclear weapons program is for self-defense, saying “we do not wish for a war but shall not hide from it.”

“If the U.S. does not want to be burnt to death by the fire it ignites, it would better behave with prudence and caution,” the report said.

The president also has tightened the economic noose on the North with tough new sanctions and a decision to put it back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

North Korea has defied those efforts by persisting with its weapons program. But a new opportunity for engagement opened up when it agreed to hold talks this week with senior U.N. envoy Jeffrey Feltman, a former State Department official.

Feltman met with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho on Thursday, although no details about their talks were released.

On Wednesday, Feltman met with the vice foreign minister and discussed U.N. assistance and operations in North Korea along with “other matters of mutual concern,” according to North Korea’s official media.

China, the North’s main ally, also sent its highest-level envoy in two years during a visit last month that was seen as an effort to bolster deteriorating relations between the two countries.

Trump has called on Beijing to do more to rein in the North by cutting off trade and oil supplies. China opposes North Korea’s nuclear program but sees Pyongyang as a buffer against U.S. forces stationed in the South. It also fears a regime collapse would lead to a humanitarian crisis.

gamel.kim@stripes.com
Twitter: @kimgamel

 

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