WASHINGTON -- The U.S. flew a B-52 bomber over South Korea on Sunday local time to keep North Korea in check after the nation conducted what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb test last week. Another objective of this show of force was to pressure China to do something about its neighbor.
"This was a demonstration of the ironclad U.S. commitment to our allies in South Korea, in Japan, and to the defense of the American homeland," said Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, in a statement.
The headquarters of the combined forces of American military units based in South Korea and the South Korean military took the unusual step of inviting the media to Osan Air Base to photograph the B-52 and fighter escorts in flight.
The B-52 is based at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. The U.S. reportedly has plans in place to deploy B-52s from Guam in case conflict breaks out on the Korean Peninsula or near the Senkaku Islands, the Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea that China claims and calls the Diaoyu.
North Korea and China surely understand the significance of the latest B-52 flight. South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported that the plane was carrying nuclear missiles. If true, the flight was a very strong threat. When the U.S. flew two B-52s over the East China Sea after Beijing established an air defense identification zone in the area, those bombers were not carrying any nuclear weapons.
The latest flight came amid growing tension across the militarized border between the two Koreas. The South resumed propaganda broadcasts using loudspeakers near the border on Friday. The North has responded by increasing troops on the front line.
The United Nations Security Council has begun discussing additional sanctions on North Korea, but these are unlikely to get the nation to halt its nuclear tests and missile launches right away. Sanctions need time to have an effect, and if China waters them down as it has in the past, they will be nothing more than diplomatic posturing. This is why Washington felt that it needed to rely on military muscle to deal with the crisis right now.
North Korea's nuclear program has riled the world for more than two decades. There have been repeated instances in which the authoritarian regime showed a willingness to compromise but talks ended up collapsing and sanctions were imposed. The U.S. and the rest of the international community now share the view that real progress on this issue is impossible unless China becomes serious about reining in North Korea.
Washington is believed to be discussing with Seoul the deployment of a land-based missile defense system for U.S. forces in South Korea. Such a step, which poses a threat to China as well, may carry more urgency depending on how Beijing deals with the latest North Korean provocation.