SEOUL, South Korea -- U.S. Air Force bombers flew over international waters east of North Korea on Saturday as tension simmers between the two nations and their respective leaders, and a tremor earlier struck close to North Korea's nuclear test site.
Defense Department spokesman Dana White said in a statement that the bombers' mission shows how seriously the U.S. takes what he calls North Korea's "reckless behavior."
"This mission is a demonstration of U.S. resolve and a clear message that the president has many military options to defeat any threat," White said in a statement.
"North Korea's weapons program is a grave threat to the Asia-Pacific region and the entire international community. We are prepared to use the full range of military capabilities to defend the U.S. homeland and our allies," White said.
The Pentagon said B-1B bombers from Guam, along with F-15C Eagle fighter escorts from Okinawa, Japan, flew in international airspace Saturday over waters east of North Korea. The U.S. characterized the flights as extending farther north of the demilitarized zone than any U.S. fighter or bomber has gone off the North Korean coast in the 21st century.
The demilitarized zone is a strip of land that has divided South Korea and North Korea since 1953.
B-1 bombers are no longer part of the U.S. nuclear force, but they are capable of dropping large numbers of conventional bombs.
Also Saturday, a small earthquake was detected near North Korea's underground nuclear test site, reviving fears that the country had set off another bomb.
The tremor originated about 12 miles southeast of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in Kilju County, in northeast North Korea.
China's official Xinhua News Agency said the country's seismic service detected a magnitude-3.4 quake in North Korea and saw the likely cause as an explosion. The news agency issued a fresh report later, saying the seismic service after further study concluded that the quake was natural and not the result of a nuclear test.
An official from Seoul's Korea Meteorological Administration said the analysis of seismic waves and the lack of sound waves clearly showed that the quake wasn't caused by an artificial explosion. She spoke on condition of anonymity, citing office rules.
Another Korea Meteorological Administration official, who also didn't want to be named, said the agency believes it's a low probability that the earthquake was caused by a tunnel collapse.
The U.S. Geological Survey said it detected a magnitude-3.5 quake in the area of previous North Korean nuclear tests, but it was unable to confirm whether the event was natural. The agency put the quake's depth at 3.1 miles.
North Korea detonated its sixth and most powerful nuclear weapon earlier this month at its underground Punggye-ri site northeast of Pyongyang, causing a quake with a magnitude of around 6.3. The action escalated tensions with the U.S. and North Korea's neighbors, and last week its foreign minister said the regime's options included testing a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean.
There have been concerns about the stability of the nuclear test site since the Sept. 3 detonation. Website 38 North said satellite imagery taken after that test appeared to show landslides atop the site that were more numerous and widespread than after the previous five tests.
The website, run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, added that the bomb's 250-kiloton yield was close to what it previously determined was the maximum that could be contained by the test site.
The Sept. 3 detonation followed two intercontinental ballistic missile launches in July that took Kim Jong Un's isolated regime a step closer to achieving its aim of being able to deploy a nuclear warhead over the continental U.S.
On Thursday, North Korea struck back at U.S. President Donald Trump's threats to destroy it, with Kim warning of the "highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history," and his foreign minister suggesting that could include testing a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean.
NORTH KOREA AT U.N.
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly, North Korea's foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, said Saturday that his country's nuclear force is "to all intents and purposes, a war deterrent for putting an end to nuclear threat of the U.S. and for preventing its military invasion, and our ultimate goal is to establish the balance of power with the U.S."
He also said Trump's depiction of Kim as "Rocket Man" makes "our rocket's visit to the entire U.S. mainland inevitable all the more."
Harsh sanctions placed on North Korea's trade with the outside world will have no impact on its ability to complete building a nuclear bomb capable of reaching the United States, Ri said, suggesting that that stage is imminent.
"Through such a prolonged and arduous struggle, now we are finally only a few steps away from the final gate of completion of the state nuclear force," he said.
"It is only a forlorn hope to consider any chance that the DPRK would be shaken an inch or change its stance due to the harsher sanctions by the hostile forces," he said, using the acronym for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The rhetoric between Trump and Kim has grown exceptionally personal. At a rally Friday night in Alabama, Trump called Kim "little rocketman," magnifying the disparaging label he slung at Kim in his U.N. speech Tuesday in which Trump warned that the United States would "totally destroy" North Korea in defense of itself or its allies. He said Kim was on a "suicide mission"
Kim in turn called Trump a "frightened dog" and a "mentally deranged U.S. dotard." Ri echoed those sentiments Saturday, calling the president a "mentally deranged person full of megalomania" and at one point referring to him a "President Evil."
"None other than Trump himself is on a suicide mission," Ri said in broad denunciation of Trump that drew applause from the North Korean delegation. "In case innocent lives of the U.S. are harmed because of this suicide attack, Trump will be held totally responsible."
Ri emphasized that North Korea has the know-how to carry out its threat. He said Pyongyang has a hydrogen bomb that can fit on an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. On Friday, Ri said North Korea was prepared to test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean.
"Trump might not have been aware what is uttered from his mouth, but we will make sure that he bears consequences far beyond his words, far beyond the scope of what he can handle even if he is ready to do so," Ri said.
His comments came after Trump ordered new sanctions on individuals, companies and banks doing business with North Korea as he sought to further isolate the regime and increase economic pressure for it to curb its weapons programs.
North Korea's state media issued a statement Saturday from the National Peace Committee of Korea describing Trump as "wicked" and "a rabid dog."
"He, who cried out the extermination of the Korean nation, is a blood-thirsty beast indulged in massacring," the Korean Central News Agency cited the statement as saying. "It is necessary not to make Trump, a source of the world's worst misfortune, survive to run amok and not to make the U.S. exist on this planet as it only inflicts untold suffering and misfortune upon the Korean nation and humankind."
Earlier this month, Pyongyang fired its second missile in as many months over northern Japan into the Pacific Ocean. Since Kim rose to power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011, he has ramped up nuclear and missile weapon tests.
U.S. analysts now say North Korea may have as many as 60 nuclear weapons, according to a Washington Post report. That's in addition to cyberwarfare capabilities, a biological weapons research program and a chemical weapons stockpile. It also has a vast array of conventional artillery aimed at Seoul.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho (left) talks with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres before a meeting Saturday in New York. In an address, Ri said his country’s military goal is “to establish the balance of power with the U.S.”
Information for this article was contributed by Janet Ong, Sam Kim, Kanga Kong, Stanley James, Gearoid Reidy, Shinhye Kang and Andy Sharp of Bloomberg News; by Choe Sang-Hun of The New York Times; by Carol Morello of The Washington Post; and by Robert Burns and Matthew Pennington of The Associated Press.
A Section on 09/24/2017
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