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SKorea, US hold joint air drills after NKorea’s ICBM launch

Seoul, Feb 19 (IANS) South Korea and the US staged combined air drills, involving US B-1B strategic bombers, on Sunday, Seoul’s military said, as North Korea launched a long-range ballistic missile the previous day.

During the drills, F-35A stealth fighters and F-15K jets from the South flew together with US F-16 fighters to escort the B-1B aircraft entering the South’s air defense identification zone, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). It did not clarify the number of B-1B aircraft deployed here, Yonhap News Agency reported.

Earlier in the day, the North confirmed that it fired a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile in a “sudden” launching drill aimed at ensuring its nuclear deterrent.

“The training this time demonstrated the South Korea-US combined defence capabilities and posture featuring the alliance’s overwhelming forces, through the timely and immediate deployment of the U.S.’ extended deterrence assets to the Korean Peninsula,” the JCS said in a press release.

It added that the air drills affirmed Washington’s “ironclad” commitment to the defence of the peninsula and its extended deterrence pledge.

Extended deterrence means the US’ commitment to mobilising a full range of its military capabilities, including nuclear, to defend its allies.

In the combined drills, the two sides are said to have mobilized some 10 aircraft in total. They flew in a formation over the Yellow Sea, East Sea and then a southern region in the South.

The B-1B bomber is a supersonic aircraft that can fly a maximum distance of 11,998 kilometers and carry up to 57 tons of weapons, according to the JCS. It can be deployed to the peninsula within two hours if it is called upon to respond to a contingency.

Saturday’s missile provocation came as Seoul and Washington plan to conduct a tabletop exercise against the North’s nuclear threats this week and the springtime Freedom Shield exercise next month.

In a statement earlier in the day, Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, warned that the North will carry out a “very powerful and overwhelming” response to any “hostile” acts against Pyongyang.