US sends B-2s to South Korea for military drills

U.S. Air Force B-2 stealth bomber flies over near Osan U.S. Air Base in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, South Korea, Thursday. A day after shutting down a key military hotline, Pyongyang instead used indirect communications with Seoul to allow South Koreans to cross the heavily armed border and work at a factory complex that is the last major symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.

U.S. Air Force B-2 stealth bomber flies over near Osan U.S. Air Base in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, South Korea, Thursday. A day after shutting down a key military hotline, Pyongyang instead used indirect communications with Seoul to allow South Koreans to cross the heavily armed border and work at a factory complex that is the last major symbol of inter-Korean cooperation. Photo by The Associated Press.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — In a show of force following weeks of North Korean bluster, the U.S. on Thursday took the unprecedented step of announcing that two of its nuclear-capable B-2 bombers joined joint military drills with South Korea, dropping dummy munitions on an island range.

The announcement is likely to further enrage Pyongyang, which has already issued a flood of ominous statements to highlight displeasure over the drills and U.N. sanctions over its nuclear test last month. But there were signs Thursday that it is willing to go only so far.

A North Korean industrial plant operated with South Korean know-how was running normally, despite the North’s shutdown a day earlier of communication lines ordinarily used to move workers and goods across the border. At least for the moment, Pyongyang was choosing the factory’s infusion of hard currency over yet another provocation.

U.S. Forces Korea said in a statement that the B-2 stealth bombers flew from a U.S. air base in Missouri and dropped dummy munitions on the South Korean island range before returning home. It was unclear whether America’s stealth bombers were used in past annual drills with South Korea, but this is the first time the military has announced their use.

The statement follows an earlier U.S. announcement that nuclear-capable B-52 bombers participated in the joint military drills.

The announcement will likely draw a strong response from Pyongyang. North Korea sees the military drills as part of a U.S. plot to invade and becomes particularly upset about U.S. nuclear activities in the region. Washington and Seoul say the drills are routine and defensive.

North Korea has already threatened nuclear strikes on Washington and Seoul in recent weeks. It said Wednesday there was no need for communication in a situation “where a war may break out at any moment.” Earlier this month, it announced that it considers void the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953.

But Pyongyang would have gone beyond words, possibly damaging its own weak finances, if it had blocked South Koreans from getting in and out of the Kaesong industrial plant, which produced $470 million worth of goods last year.

South Korean managers at the plant reported no signs of trouble Thursday.

Analysts see a full-blown North Korean attack as extremely unlikely, though there are fears of a more localized conflict, such as a naval skirmish in disputed Yellow Sea waters. Such naval clashes have happened three times since 1999.

The Kaesong plant, just across the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone that separates the Koreas, normally relies on a military hotline for the governments to coordinate the movement of goods and South Korean workers.

Without the hotline, the governments, which lack diplomatic relations, used middlemen. North Korea verbally approved the crossing Thursday of hundreds of South Koreans by telling South Koreans at a management office at the Kaesong factory. Those South Koreans then called officials in South Korea.

Technically, the divided Korean Peninsula remains in a state of war. North Korea last shut down communications at Kaesong four years ago, and that time some workers were temporarily stranded.

North Korea could be trying to stoke worries that the hotline shutdown could mean that a military provocation could come any time without notice.

South Korea urged the North to quickly restore the hotline, and the U.S. State Department said the shutdown was unconstructive.

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