The United States sent its newest and most advanced fighter jets to join South Korean and Japanese aircraft in drills yesterday in a show of force against North Korea.
The 10-hour drill involved four US F-35B jets and two B-1B bombers flying over Japanese waters with two Japanese warplanes, and this was followed by the US planes joining four South Korean fighter jets in a live-fire exercise in eastern Gangwon province.
The drills were a direct response to North Korea's test of a missile that flew 2,700km over Japan on Tuesday, according to South Korean and US military officials.
Described as an "unprecedented combined manoeuvre" by South Korea's Yonhap news agency, the flights also coincided with the end of an 11-day annual US-South Korean military exercise that Pyongyang has repeatedly denounced as a preparation for war.
Earlier, in Washington, US Defence Secretary James Mattis and his South Korean counterpart Song Young Moo, in reaffirming their defence partnership, agreed that a "strong, effective and credible" military response could underscore diplomatic efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.
Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera had also phoned Mr Mattis, and both men agreed to keep putting pressure on North Korea in a "visible" form, according to the Defence Ministry in Tokyo. The ministry moved yesterday to boost the country's missile defence with a request for a record US$160 million (S$217.3 million) more to develop longer-range missiles.
But Mr Mattis did not close the door on diplomacy, contradicting a tweet by President Donald Trump on Wednesday in which he declared that "talking is not the answer".
"We are never out of diplomatic solutions," Mr Mattis told reporters with Mr Song at his side. "We continue to work together... We are never complacent."
Reports here said that during the meeting with Mr Mattis, the South Korean defence chief had raised the issue of the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula as well as the building of nuclear-powered submarines by South Korea.
Calls for the country to go nuclear have been growing, with the main opposition conservative Liberty Korea Party submitting a parliamentary resolution yesterday to acquire such weapons, instead of relying on the US shield.
Professor Kim Jae Chun from Sogang University told The Straits Times: "This is also a signal to the Chinese - if you don't cooperate on the North Korea situation, the only option we have is to nuclearise ourselves, which will bring significant damage to China's strategic interest in the region."
Both China and Russia, however, continued to urge restraint yesterday. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said the situation on the peninsula was serious.
"The current tense situation on the peninsula is neither a movie script nor a computer game, but a major, serious problem that relates directly to the safety of people on both sides of the peninsula, as well as the region's peace and security," she told reporters. "We hope all parties... will make rational judgment and wise choices."
Mattis contradicts Trump over North Korea diplomacy. http://str.sg/4Hnn