No relaxation in sight: At the end of joint air exercises, the armed forces of the USA and South Korea once again demonstrated military strength against North Korea. For the first time in five years, the US sent B-1B long-range bombers to the Korean peninsula, South Korea's general staff said on Saturday. Two of these supersonic bombers, along with eight fighter jets from both countries, took part in the "Vigilant Storm" maneuver in South Korea, which ended after six days.
North Korea continued its missile tests the same day. At least four short-range ballistic missiles were detected after launch in North Korea, according to the South Korean military. They flew about 130 kilometers towards the Yellow Sea.
It was not clear from the information whether the tests were carried out after the B-1B bombers flew over or before. In the past, the United States had repeatedly flown long-range bombers over South Korea as a sign of the strength of the alliance.
North Korea is currently testing missiles again at an unusually high frequency. In the past week alone, Land has fired more than 25 missiles, including an ICBM, according to the military in South Korea. The tests were also seen as a reaction to the air exercises in South Korea. North Korea accused both countries of "ruthless provocation" and threatened countermeasures. South Korea and the USA also fear that North Korea's first nuclear test in years could be imminent.
UN resolutions ban the largely isolated state from both nuclear tests and the testing of ballistic missiles of any range that can be armed with a nuclear warhead.
More than a million soldiers
The threats of a pre-emptive strike are not fundamentally new, but experts say there are some alarming changes in the one-party state's existing nuclear doctrine. "Pyongyang has lowered the threshold for using nuclear weapons in some scenarios described in the legislation," writes East Asia expert Bruce Klingner in a Heritage Foundation report.
More than a million soldiers face each other on the gun-ridden border between South and North Korea. The United States also currently has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea as a deterrent against North Korea. People in the region fear that even the slightest miscalculation on either side could have the most dangerous consequences.
The prospect of North Korea's nuclear force being put on high alert is deeply troubling, writes expert Ankit Panda in Foreign Policy magazine. It could also "create the risk that Pyongyang could launch a nuclear war based on false warnings, or misperceived the purpose of US or South Korean military activities."
A further complication is that no consensual action against the increasing tensions on the Korean peninsula can currently be expected at the level of the UN Security Council. At its ninth session this year on the subject of North Korea, the split in the highest UN body on Friday prevented the 15 members from issuing a joint statement. Instead, a number of countries — including the US, Britain and France — separately condemned Pyongyang's missile tests.
A unified approach by the Council failed in the past due to resistance from China, which is seen as North Korea's closest international partner. At the meeting on Friday, Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun criticized, among other things, American-South Korean military exercises, which he believes are driving the spiral of escalation. However, he also stressed that Beijing was clearly opposed to any nuclear build-up on the Korean peninsula.