North Korea Condemns B-1B Sortie as Tillerson Escalates Rhetoric

North Korea on March 16 claimed the US deployed a B-1B bomber from Andersen AFB, Guam, to rehearse “pre-emptive strikes against our major facilities,” UPI reported. The claim was made through state-controlled media and accused the US of “deepening the threat of nuclear weapons.” Pacific Air Forces acknowledged the B-1B sortie, and a spokesperson told Air Force Magazine on Friday that it was “conducted as part of our continuous bomber presence mission based at Andersen.” PACAF did not offer details on the purpose of the mission, but said flights like this one offer “the opportunity to advance and strengthen alliances as well as strengthen long-standing military-to-military partnerships across the Pacific.” The spokesperson also confirmed that the sortie was not a part of Foal Eagle, the ongoing annual joint exercise involving US and Republic of Korea forces.

The controversy comes as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled an escalation of the US response to North Korea at a Seoul press conference on Friday. He said that the “policy of strategic patience has ended,” and that “all options are on the table” for the administration as it seeks to compel Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program, the Washington Post reported. The Obama Administration used a regime of drastic sanctions in an effort to compel North Korea to return to negotiations and to give up its nuclear program. Tillerson’s comments are the clearest indication so far that the Trump Administration plans a fundamental strategy shift. While the US does not want military conflict with North Korea, Tillerson said, “if they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table.” On March 6, North Korea launched four medium-range ballistic missiles into the waters near Japan, some landing as close as 190 miles from the coast. Later the same day, the US initiated the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system on the Korean Peninsula.