WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States sent F-22 stealth fighter jets to South Korea on Sunday to join military drills aimed at underscoring the US commitment to defend Seoul in the face of an intensifying campaign of threats from North Korea.
The advanced, radar-evading F-22 Raptors were deployed to Osan Air Base, the main US Air Force base in South Korea, from Japan to support ongoing bilateral exercises, the US military command in South Korea said in a statement that urged North Korea to restrain itself.
"(North Korea) will achieve nothing by threats or provocations, which will only further isolate North Korea and undermine international efforts to ensure peace and stability in North-east Asia," the statement said.
Sabre-rattling on the Korean peninsula drew a plea for peace from Pope Francis, who in his first Easter Sunday address called for a diplomatic solution to the crisis on the Korean peninsula.
"Peace in Asia, above all on the Korean peninsula: may disagreements be overcome and a renewed spirit of reconciliation grow," he said, speaking in Italian.
Tensions have been high since the North's young new leader, Kim Jong-un, ordered a nuclear weapons test in February, breaching United Nations sanctions and ignoring warnings from North Korea's closest ally, China, not to do so.
That test, North Korea's third since 2006, drew further UN and bilateral sanctions designed to pressure the impoverished North to stop its nuclear weapons programme.
Pyongyang responded to the new steps by ratcheting up warnings and threats of war.
North Korea said on Saturday it was entering a "state of war" with South Korea, but Seoul and its ally the United States played down the statement from the official KCNA news agency as the latest in a stream of tough talk from Pyongyang.
In a rare US show of force aimed at North Korea, the United States on Thursday flew two radar-evading B-2 Spirit bombers on practice runs over South Korea.
On Friday, Kim signed an order putting the North's missile units on standby to attack US military bases in South Korea and the Pacific, after the stealth bomber flights.
The F-22 jets will take part in the annual US-South Korea Foal Eagle military drills, which are designed to sharpen the allies' readiness to defend the South from an attack by North Korea, the US military said.
The US military did not say how many of the planes were flown to South Korea from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa.
The statement described Sunday's deployment as part of routine shifts of air power among bases in the Western Pacific that US forces have been conducting since 2004.
Japan's Kyodo news agency quoted the top Japanese government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, as condemning Pyongyang for "aggressive provocation" after Kim's ruling party newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, identified US military bases in Japan as targets for attack.
The two Koreas have been technically in a state of war since a truce that ended their 1950-53 conflict.
Despite its threats, few people see any indication Pyongyang will risk a near-certain defeat by re-starting full-scale war.