N. Korea warns of nuclear 'tipping point' after US drill

US bombers and fighter jets flying over South Korea during a joint live-fire drill on July 8, 2017.
US bombers and fighter jets flying over South Korea during a joint live-fire drill on July 8, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

Pyongyang accuses Washington, Seoul of raising tension with live-fire exercise, following North's ICBM test

SEOUL - North Korea yesterday lashed out at a live-fire drill that the United States and South Korea staged in a show of force against Pyongyang, accusing Washington of pushing the peninsula to the "tipping point" of nuclear war.

The allies held the rare live-fire drill as tensions grew over the peninsula following the North's first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test last week.

The test sparked global alarm as it suggested that North Korea now possessed an ICBM capable of reaching Alaska, a major milestone for the reclusive, nuclear-armed state.

Last Saturday's drill, designed to "sternly respond" to potential missile launches by the North, saw two US bombers destroy "enemy" missile batteries and South Korean jets mount precision strikes against underground command posts.

The long-range B-1B Lancers, deployed from the US base in Guam, conducted an air-to-surface firing drill in Gangwon province, near the heavily fortified border with North Korea, the US Air Force said. They were joined by South Korean F-15 and US F-16 fighter jets.

North Korea's state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper accused Washington and Seoul of ratcheting up tensions with the drill, in an editorial titled, "Don't play with fire on a powder keg". Describing the peninsula as the "world's biggest tinderbox", Rodong Sinmun said: "The US, with its dangerous military provocation, is pushing the risk of a nuclear war on the peninsula to a tipping point."

Pyongyang described the joint drill as a "dangerous military gambit of warmongers who are trying to ignite the fuse of a nuclear war on the peninsula". It added: "A small misjudgment or error can immediately lead to the beginning of a nuclear war, which will inevitably lead to another world war."

Tensions have been high as the US administration under President Donald Trump and the North's regime under leader Kim Jong Un have exchanged hostile rhetoric for months. Tensions further escalated after last Tuesday's ICBM test, a milestone in the North's decades- long quest for weapons capable of reaching the US.

The impoverished, isolated country has staged five nuclear tests - including two last year - and has made significant progress in its missile capability under Mr Kim, who took power in 2011.

While the response by the US military is, to a certain extent, a show of force, the firing drill was unusual, said North Korean Studies professor Koh Yu Hwan from Dongguk University, adding: "The revealing of the drill by bombers is sabre-rattling by South Korea and the US against the launch of the ICBM."

The US is planning to carry out a test of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system against an intermediate-range ballistic missile in the coming days. The test of the interceptors, planned months ago, will take place from Alaska.

Analysts and diplomats who are veterans of previous flare-ups between the US and North Korea acknowledged that there are huge obstacles in the way of talks - not least because the two have no diplomatic relations. Still, they said talks are the only possible and viable solution, whether directly or via third parties, including senior US politicians outside the Trump administration.

"The only way out here is diplomacy," said Mr James Clapper, who was US intelligence chief in South Korea and later director of national intelligence under former president Barack Obama.

Mr Trump said in May that he would be "honoured" to meet Mr Kim under what he called the right circumstances, in essence demanding that North Korea first halt its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

While Mr Trump promised a "pretty severe" retort to North Korea's ICBM test, his Defence Secretary Jim Mattis' response was to echo British wartime leader Winston Churchill's mantra that it is "better to jaw-jaw than war-war".

Mr Kim also appeared to leave the door open for talks after last Tuesday's test, saying his nuclear and ballistic missile programmes could be "on the table" if the US dropped what he called its "hostile policy".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2017, with the headline 'N. Korea warns of nuclear 'tipping point' after US drill'. Print Edition | Subscribe