For their part, South Korea and the United States demonstrated their own combined air power superiority this past week, with warplanes conducting a record 1,600 sorties during the Vigilant Storm exercise.
On Saturday, two nuclear-capable B-1B Lancer bombers, taking off from Guam, the U.S. territory in the West Pacific, flew over South Korea, flanked by four South Korean F-35A fighter jets and four American F-16 jets, according to the South Korean military. The United States last deployed B-1B bombers over South Korea in 2017, when North Korea conducted its last nuclear test, as well as test-firing its first ICBMs.
The North Koreans are particularly sensitive about long-range American bombers over South Korea, after U.S. aerial bombings leveled their country to ashes during the Korean War in the 1950s.
Sending the B-1Bs, which had been scheduled in advance of North Korea’s Saturday morning missile launch, was part of Washington’s commitment to its so-called extended deterrence, including deployment of nuclear-capable military forces, to help defend South Korea against the North’s growing nuclear and missile threat.
Jitters over the North Korean nuclear arsenal have been rising in South Korea since North Korea adopted a more aggressive nuclear doctrine, openly declaring that it would use nuclear weapons if threatened. It has also conducted military exercises that it said involved the mock launching of nuclear missiles at South Korea.
North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, views expanding his nuclear and missile force as essential to ensuring his regime’s security, increasing his leverage in future arms control talks with Washington and tipping the balance of military power between North and South Korea in the North’s favor, according to analysts.
When Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III met his South Korean counterpart, Lee Jong-sup, in Washington this past week, he warned that “any nuclear attack” by the North would “result in the end of the Kim regime,” according to a joint statement.