On Tuesday, the day following the death of 22-year-old American student Otto Warmbier, who had been held prisoner in North Korea for 15 months, two United States B1 B bombers buzzed North Korea on what the military said were exercises in the Korean peninsula. The B1 B is a supersonic jet capable of carrying the largest conventional weapons payload of any U.S. military aircraft.
Although the bombers, which conducted joint drills with South Korean F-15 fighter jets, were claimed by the South Korean military to be on a “routine” training mission, reportedly conducting a mock bombing run at Pilsung Range, located in the eastern South Korean Gangwon province, the U.S. Air Force acknowledged that the drills were intended to send a message to North Korea.
“These flights with the Republic of Korea demonstrate solidarity between the ROK and U.S. to defend against provocative and destabilizing actions in the Pacific theater,” the U.S. Pacific Air Forces said in an official statement. The blunt language of the statement is unusual for military descriptions of “routine drills.”
But experts said that the sharp wording of the statement might have been directed as much at the South as the North despite the timing of the B1 B bomber flights just a day after Warmbier’s death following what appeared to be serious mistreatment by his North Korean government captors.
The U.S. was reportedly unhappy with recent statements by South Korean presidential foreign affairs adviser Moon Chung-in, who said publicly last week that the South and the U.S. would curtail their joint military exercises in exchange for a rollback in North Korea’s nuclear program.
Newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in has taken a softer stance toward North Korea than has been the case for most of his predecessors, and he said Monday that although Warmbier’s death proves that Kim Jong un runs an “irrational regime,” negotiations between North and South remain necessary because “we were unable to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue through only the sanctions and pressure.”
In Washington, however, Donald Trump adopted a saber-rattling posture following Warmbier’s death, which came just days after he was unexpectedly released by North Korea, albeit in a comatose state and with severe brain and other physical injuries.
Calling the North Korean government a “brutal regime,” Trump warned cryptically that the United States would “be able to handle it.”
Though the B1 B bomber runs on Tuesday were intended as a show of force against North Korea, according to the Air Force, contrary to some media reports, the bombers are not equipped to deliver nuclear weapons.
The B1 first went into service in 1986 and was at that time designed as a long-range aircraft capable of delivering a nuclear payload. But in 1994, the U.S. military phased out the plane’s nuclear capabilities, cutting off funding for upkeep of the B1 B’s nuclear functionality.
However, the plane was still considered capable of carrying and dropping nuclear weapons until 2007 under the original START treaty signed in the final days of the Soviet Union in 1991. But in an agreement that would remain in effect for 15 years when the new START treaty was signed between the U.S. and Russia in 2010, the B1 B was converted to become a conventional weapons bomber only.
[Featured Image By U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III/Wikimedia Commons]