A pair of the U.S. Air Force’s B-2 stealth bombers made the least-stealthy flight in their history Thursday, flying 13,000 miles round-trip from their Missouri base to fly over South Korea and drop inert bombs on a target range in the Yellow Sea. It was the latest in a steadily escalating war of nerves pitting the U.S. and its South Korean ally against the increasingly bellicose North Korea.
“The United States is steadfast in its alliance commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea, to deterring aggression, and to ensuring peace and stability in the region,” the U.S. military command in Seoul said in a statement. “The B-2 bomber is an important element of America’s enduring and robust extended deterrence capability in the Asia-Pacific region.”
The U.S. military rarely declares where its B-2s have been. The unusual statement was clearly designed as a brushback pitch aimed at North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s head. It marked the first time the U.S. military confirmed that B-2s had been in Korean airspace, and represents a ratcheting up of tensions that began after North Korea conducted a third nuclear-weapons test Feb. 12.
Since then, the U.S. and South Korea have pushed for additional UN sanctions against the North and engaged in military exercises, including earlier B-52 bomber flights, slated to last another month. In response, North Korea has ordered its forces to high states of alert and generated reams of rhetoric that may be amusing to outsiders but must have much of North Korea scared stiff.
As the B-2s flew their Korean mission, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke by phone with counterpart Kim Kwan-jin, defense minister to South Korea’s new, and first female, president, Park Geun-hye. “Secretary Hagel and Minister Kim reaffirmed the strength of the alliance, which has been, and continues to be, instrumental in maintaining stability on the Korean Peninsula,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
But all the martial tit-for-tatting doesn’t mean much so long as North Korea continues to allow hundreds of South Koreans to cross through the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea to work at the Kaesong industrial zone north of Panmunjom. Nearly 500 South Koreas cross into the North each day for textile and other manpower-intensive work, a key source of income for cash-strapped Pyongyang. U.S. officials say the situation on the peninsula will be dire if the North bars South Korean workers from Kaesong.
The B-2 flights come a day after the North cut off the final telephone hotline linking the two countries. “Under the situation where a war may break out any moment, there is no need to keep north-south military communications which were laid between the militaries of both sides,” the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said. “War and confrontation can never go together with dialogue and reconciliation under any circumstances.”
While the tone of such dispatches is dire, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seems to be playing the lead roles in McHale’s Navy, Gomer Pyle USMC and Hogan’s Heroes in non-stop reruns. For much of the past week, he has been shown visiting up to three North Korean military installations a day, issuing non-stop commands to prepare his forces for a war that only North Korea sees as imminent.
A highlight from a typical KCNA dispatch shows a commanding commander-in-chief commanding:
He issued an order for drills without any notice and finally examined the landing and anti-landing capabilities of the large combined units of the KPA Ground Force and the KPA Navy combined unit situated in the eastern sector of the front and the east coastal area.
After receiving a report on the plan of the drills, he gave an order to start the drills.
First the drill of striking and wiping out landing enemies in the waters took place.
Multiple launch rocket systems opened fire all at once.
He was greatly satisfied with the drill. He said “It was well done”, adding that the units made intensive firing at the group of enemy warships after setting a correct time for firing on the basis of the full grasp of the enemy’s landing plan and when the rate of destroying enemy ships was considered as the highest.
He stressed the need to destroy the enemies in waters to the last man through strong firepower so that they might not land in the coast of the territory.
He ordered the soldiers of the heroic KPA to display their mettle in the great war against the enemies and send all of them to the bottom of the sea as they run wild like wolves threatened with fire.
Then the landing operation of KPA Navy Unit 597 started.
High-speed boats charged into the coast in succession.
Watching through field glasses combatants occupying enemy positions at a breath, he said they look highly-spirited and if it were an actual battle, the enemies would have no time to come to their senses.
Just how much senior members of the North Korean military like taking orders from the pudgy, basketball-loving Kim – who has never served a day in uniform – is a topic of much debate inside the U.S. military.