SEOUL, South Korea — The South Korean and U.S. military flew 20 fighter jets over the waters off South Korea’s west coast on Tuesday in a continued show of force as a senior U.S. official warned of a forceful response if North Korea conducts its first nuclear test blast in nearly five years.
South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said the aerial demonstration involved 16 South Korean aircraft – including F-35A stealth fighters – and four US F-16 fighter jets and was intended to demonstrate their ability to respond quickly to North Korean provocations.
The flight came a day after allies fired eight surface-to-surface missiles into South Korea’s eastern waters to match a weekend missile display by North Korea, which fired the same number of guns from multiple locations on Sunday in what was probably his biggest single-day testing event.
North Korea could soon raise the bar as US and South Korean officials say the country is all but ready to carry out another detonation at its nuclear testing ground in the northeastern city of Punggye-ri. east of the country. Its last such test and sixth overall was in September 2017, when it claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear bomb designed for its intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Heading to Seoul to discuss the standoff with South Korean and Japanese allies, US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman warned of a ‘swift and forceful’ response if the North conducts another nuclear test .
While the Biden administration has pledged to push for additional international sanctions if North Korea proceeds with the nuclear test, the prospects for further meaningful punitive measures are unclear with the UN Security Council divided. .
“Any nuclear test would be in total violation of UN Security Council resolutions. There would be a swift and forceful response to such a test,” Sherman said, following a meeting with South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Cho Hyun-dong.
“We continue to urge Pyongyang to cease its destabilizing and provocative activities and choose the path of diplomacy,” she said.
Sherman and Cho are planning a trilateral meeting with Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Mori Takeo on the North Korean nuclear issue on Wednesday.
North Korea’s launches on Sunday extended a provocative streak of weapons testing this year that also included the country’s first ICBM demonstrations since 2017.
Since coming to power in 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has accelerated the development of his weaponry despite limited resources. Experts say that with its upcoming test, North Korea could claim the ability to build small bombs that could be clustered on a multi-warhead ICBM or mounted on short-range missiles that could reach South Korea and the Japan.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Monday there were indications that one of the passages at the Punggye-ri testing ground had been reopened, possibly in preparation for a nuclear test.
Hours before Sherman’s meeting in Seoul, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington that the United States remained concerned that North Korea might request its seventh test.” in the next few days”.
The Biden administration’s punitive actions regarding North Korea’s weapons testing in recent months have been limited to largely symbolic unilateral sanctions. Russia and China have vetoed a US-sponsored Security Council resolution that would have imposed additional sanctions on North Korea for its previous ballistic tests on May 25.
“We have called on members of the international community, certainly members of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, to be responsible actors in the UN Security Council as the preeminent forum to address threats to international peace and security,” Price said.
“Unilateral actions will never be the most attractive or even the most effective response, and that’s especially the case because we’re happy to have close allies in the form of Japan and the Republic of Korea,” he said. he said, referring to South Korea. official name, the Republic of Korea.
North Korean state media has yet to comment on Sunday’s launches. They came after the US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan concluded a three-day naval exercise with South Korea in the Philippine Sea on Saturday, reportedly their first joint exercise involving an aircraft carrier since November 2017, as the countries are preparing to improve their defense exercises against North Korean threats.
North Korea has long condemned allies’ combined military drills as invasion rehearsals and has often countered with its own missile drills, including launches in 2016 and 2017 that simulated nuclear attacks on South Korean ports and US military installations in Japan.
Following the latest North Korean launches, the United States conducted separate joint missile exercises with Japan and South Korea, which it said were aimed at demonstrating its response capability.
Nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled since 2019 over disagreements over trading the release of crippling US-led sanctions over the North’s disarmament moves. Kim has since stepped up his testing activities despite mounting economic problems and has shown no willingness to completely give up an arsenal he sees as his best guarantee of survival.
His government has so far rejected offers from the Biden administration for open talks and clearly intends to convert the dormant denuclearization negotiations into a mutual arms reduction process, experts say.
Kim’s lobbying campaign has not been slowed by a COVID-19 outbreak that has spread to his largely unvaccinated population of 26 million amid a lack of public health tools. The North has so far rejected offers of help from the United States and South Korea, but there are indications that it has received at least some vaccine supplies from the Chinese ally.
South Korean activist Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector who for years launched anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets by balloon across the border, said his group flew 20 balloons on Tuesday carrying medicine, masks and vitamins to help North Korean civilians.
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