US strategic bombers took part in joint air drills with South Korean forces on Sunday, the same day as North Korea carried out a suspected ballistic missile test, according to the South Korean military.
The exercise featured US B-1B strategic bombers, F-35A stealth fighters from the South Korean Air Force and F-16 fighters of the US Air Force, and was part of the Freedom Shield joint exercise, the military said in a press release.
News of the exercise came on the same day as North Korea launched a suspected ballistic missile into the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, shortly after 11 a.m. local time, according to Japan's Ministry of Defense and the South Korean army.
However, the South Korean Defense Ministry would not confirm if the air training drill with the US bombers took place before or after the missile launch.
"The South Korea-US alliance maintains the best-combined defense posture in the face of North Korea's continued regional instability," the South Korean military said in its press release.
"Going forward, we will realize 'Peace through Strength' and enhance the credibility of the US extended deterrence based on the solid capabilities and posture of the alliance," it added.
The suspected ballistic missile launched by North Korea on Sunday reached a maximum altitude of approximately 50km (31 miles) and flew a distance of approximately 800km (497 miles), according to Japan's defense ministry. It was fired from the Dongchang-ri area of North Pyongan province in North Korea and landed in the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, according to the South Korean military.
After the missile landed, the Japan Coast Guard cautioned all vessels to await further information; to not approach fallen objects; and to report anything suspicious.
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said the military had strengthened surveillance and vigilance in preparation for additional launches "while maintaining a full readiness posture through close cooperation with the US."
North Korea often responds to what it views as "provocations" by the US by making bellicose threats. Its leader Kim Jong Un has accused the US and South Korea of increasing tensions with its joint military drills.
The latest launch follows a flurry of missile tests by North Korea, including one of a long-range ballistic missile on Thursday as leaders from South Korea and Japan met in Tokyo, and the firing of two cruise missiles from a submarine and two short-range ballistic missiles days before.
'A clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions'
Both the Japanese and South Korean governments strongly condemned Sunday's missile launch, which they said was a "clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions."
Pyongyang's repeated launches "threaten the peace and security of Japan, the region and the international community," Japan's defense ministry said in a statement.
The springtime joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea are the biggest war games the allies have staged in five years.
Ahead of the 11-day Freedom Shield exercises, North Korea had threatened to take the "toughest counteraction against the most vicious plots of the US and its followers."
On Saturday, North Korea claimed about 800,000 of its citizens had volunteered to join or reenlist in the nation's military to fight against the United States.
The state newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported on Saturday that about 800,000 students and workers across the country had on Friday alone expressed a desire to enlist or reenlist in the military to counter the United States.
Experts say that in addition to the joint military exercises and the meeting this week between South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japan's leader Fumio Kishida, Pyongyang has taken exception to US President Joe Biden's plan to host Yoon and his wife at the White House next month.
The state visit will be the second of Biden's presidency, underscoring close ties between the US and South Korea, and will take place April 26. The conservative Yoon and his administration have made strengthening the US-South Korea alliance a key foreign policy priority. Biden, likewise, has sought to nurture the relationship, including with the symbolic marker of his trip to Seoul in May 2022, his first stop on his inaugural trip to Asia as president.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told CNN recently that in response to the drills and the summits, Pyongyang might "order missile firings of longer ranges, attempt a spy satellite launch, demonstrate a solid-fuel engine, and perhaps even conduct a nuclear test."
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