US drills 'push Korea to brink of nuclear war'
The United States and South Korea went ahead with large-scale joint aerial drills yesterday, a move North Korea had said would push the Korean peninsula to "the brink of nuclear war", and ignoring calls from Russia and China to call them off.
The drills come a week after North Korea said it had tested its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States as part of a weapons programme that it has conducted in defiance of international sanctions and condemnation.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said it was "regrettable" that all parties had not "grasped the window of opportunity" presented by two months of relative calm before the North's most recent test.
China and Russia had proposed that the United States and South Korea stop major military exercises in exchange for North Korea halting its weapons programmes.
Beijing formally calls the idea the "dual suspension" proposal.
The annual US-South Korean drill, called Vigilant Ace, will run until Friday, with six F-22 Raptor stealth fighters to be deployed among the more than 230 aircraft taking part.
North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country called US President Donald Trump "insane" on Sunday and said the drills would "push the already acute situation on the Korean peninsula to the brink of nuclear war".
F-35 fighters will also join the drills, which will include the largest number of fifth generation fighters ever to have taken part, according to a South Korea-based US Air Force spokesman.
Around 12,000 US service members, including from the marines and navy, will join South Korean troops. Aircraft taking part will be flown from eight US and South Korean military installations.
South Korean media reports said B-1B Lancer bombers could join the exercise this week. The US Air Force spokesman could not confirm the reports.
Mr Trump said last week that additional major sanctions would be imposed on North Korea after Pyongyang's missile test.
Earlier last month, Mr Trump put North Korea back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation that allows the US to impose more sanctions.
Russia has accused the United States of trying to provoke North Korean leader Kim Jong-un into "flying off the handle" over his missile programme to hand Washington a pretext to destroy his country.
Speaking at a news briefing in Beijing, Mr Wang said China consistently opposed any behaviour that elevated tensions.
"Measures that don't abide by or are outside the UN Security Council resolutions lack basis in international law and damage the rights of United Nations members," he said when asked about the prospect of further US sanctions against North Korea.
China's Air Force said yesterday that its surveillance aircraft had in recent days conducted drills in the Yellow Sea and East China Sea to "improve combat-readiness and safeguard the country's strategic interests".
Meanwhile, three commercial airline crews reported seeing the intercontinental ballistic missile fired by North Korea last week, it was revealed yesterday.
Two Korean Air pilots and staff on a Cathay Pacific flight all reported seeing a flash of light on November 29, the day of the missile launch. They are believed to have seen the missile blowing up or falling apart. It remains unclear how close the explosion was to the flights.
However, it has raised concerns about whether airlines should consider changing routes to better protect customers, given escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Senior US political figures have warned that time is running out to solve the impasse and suggested evacuating the wives and children of US soldiers in South Korea.