By Christine Kim and Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) – A U.S. B-1B bomber flew over the Korean peninsula on Wednesday, the South Korean military said, as part of a large-scale joint aerial drill that has been denounced by North Korea as pushing the peninsula to the brink of nuclear war.
The bomber flew from Guam and joined U.S. F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters in the exercises with South Korea. The drills, which kicked off on Monday and will run until Friday, are being conducted at a time of heightened tensions on the peninsula.
They also come after North Korea tested last week what it called its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could reach all of the United States.
North Korea regularly threatens South Korea, the United States and their allies, and its official KCNA state news agency said at the weekend U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration was “begging for nuclear war” by staging the drills.
It also labelled Trump as “insane”.
The drills also coincided with a rare visit to the isolated North by United Nations political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman.
Some analysts and diplomats hope Feltman’s visit to North Korea could spark a U.N.-led effort to defuse rising international tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.
North Korea’s state media confirmed the arrival of Feltman and his entourage late on Tuesday without offering more details, later issuing a photograph of him and two members of his team.
Feltman, a former senior U.S. State Department official, is the highest-level U.N. official to visit North Korea since 2012. The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday he was not carrying any message from Washington during his visit.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in will visit China next Wednesday for a summit with his counterpart Xi Jinping, Seoul’s presidential Blue House said on Wednesday. North Korea’s increasing nuclear and missile capability would top the agenda, it said.
Moon will also meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during his four-day trip and visit Chongqing, Blue House spokesman Park Soo-hyun told a news briefing.
Chongqing was home to Korea’s government-in-exile during Japanese rule from 1910-45 and is now an industrial hub of Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative for infrastructure development.
Moon has described the North’s latest ICBM as their most capable yet, although it has several critical points to prove, such as re-entry technology and terminal stage guidance.
The annual exercise, called “Vigilant Ace”, is designed to enhance joint readiness and operational capability of U.S. extended deterrence, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
Around 12,000 U.S. service members, including from the Marines and Navy, are joining South Korean troops, while aircraft are flying from eight U.S. and South Korean military installations, officials have said.
The U.S. Air Force has said the size of this year’s drill is “comparable” to previous years.
North Korea has vehemently criticised the drills since the weekend, saying the exercise precipitates U.S. and South Korean “self-destruction”.
China and Russia had proposed that the United States and South Korea stop major military exercises in exchange for North Korea halting its weapons programmes. Beijing formally calls the idea the “dual suspension” proposal.
Russia also has communication channels open with North Korea and Moscow is ready to exert its influence on Pyongyang, the RIA news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov as saying on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Christine Kim and Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the UNITEDNATIONS, Arshad Mohammed and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON, and Vladimir Soldatkin in MOSCOW; Editing by Paul Tait)