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US bombers fly off North Korea's coast in show of force as official says conflict 'inevitable'

  • US Air Force bombers escorted by fighter jets flew over waters east of North Korea on Saturday.
  • The Pentagon said it was a show of force designed to show the range of military options available to President Trump.
  • This is the farthest north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) any U.S. aircraft has flown off North Korea's coast in the 21st century.
In this handout image provided by South Korean Defense Ministry, U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers flying with F-35B fighter jets and South Korean Air Force F-15K fighter jets during a training at the Pilsung Firing Range on September 18, 2017 in Gangwon-do, South Korea. U.S. F-35B stealth jets and B-1B bombers flew near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) for the first time since recent tension between U.S. and North Korea started raising.
Getty Images
In this handout image provided by South Korean Defense Ministry, U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers flying with F-35B fighter jets and South Korean Air Force F-15K fighter jets during a training at the Pilsung Firing Range on September 18, 2017 in Gangwon-do, South Korea. U.S. F-35B stealth jets and B-1B bombers flew near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) for the first time since recent tension between U.S. and North Korea started raising.

North Korea said on Saturday targeting the U.S. mainland with its rockets was inevitable after "Mr. Evil President" Donald Trump called Pyongyang's leader "rocket man", further escalating rhetoric over the North's nuclear weapons and missile programs.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho's remarks to the United Nations General Assembly came hours after U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers escorted by fighters flew in international airspace over waters east of North Korea, in a show of force the Pentagon said showed the range of military options available to Trump.

Ri's speech capped a week of rising tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, with Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un trading insults. Trump called Kim a "madman" on Friday, a day after Kim dubbed him a "mentally deranged U.S. dotard."

On Saturday, the mudslinging continued with Ri calling Trump "a mentally deranged person full of megalomania and complacency" who is trying to turn the United Nations into a "gangsters' nest". Ri said Trump himself was on a "suicide mission" after the U.S. president had said Kim was on such a mission.

"'President Evil' is holding the seat of the U.S. President," Ri said, warning that Pyongyang was ready to defend itself if the United States showed any sign of conducting a "decapitating operation on our headquarters or military attack against our country."

"Now we are finally only a few steps away from the final gate of completion of the state nuclear force," Ri told the annual gathering of world leaders.

He said sanctions would have no effect on Pyongyang's resolve to develop its nuclear weapons, with the ultimate goal being "balance of power with the U.S."

Trump announced new U.S. sanctions on Thursday that he said allow targeting of companies and institutions that finance and facilitate trade with North Korea.

Earlier this month the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted its ninth round of sanctions on Pyongyang to counter its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs.

The U.S. bombers' flight was the farthest north of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea that any U.S. fighter jet or bomber has flown in the 21st century, the Pentagon said.

"This mission is a demonstration of U.S. resolve and a clear message that the President has many military options to defeat any threat," said Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White.

"We are prepared to use the full range of military capabilities to defend the U.S. homeland and our allies."

North Korea has launched dozens of missiles this year, several flying over Japan, as it accelerates its program aimed at enabling it to target the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile.

Earlier on Saturday, U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers escorted by fighter jets flew in international airspace over waters east of North Korea.

The Pentagon said the maneuver was a show of force that demonstrated the range of military options available to the president.

The flight, which was disclosed shortly before North Korea's foreign minister was due to address the United Nations, was the farthest north of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea that any U.S. fighter jet or bomber has flown in the 21st century, the Pentagon said.

"This mission is a demonstration of U.S. resolve and a clear message that the President has many military options to defeat any threat," said Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White, calling North Korea's weapons program "a grave threat."

"We are prepared to use the full range of military capabilities to defend the U.S. homeland and our allies," White said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of his country's own Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017.
KCNA | Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of his country's own Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017.

Pyongyang conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test on Sept. 3 and has launched dozens of missiles this year as it accelerates a program aimed at enabling it to target the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile. The North has threatened to test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific.

The Pentagon said the B-1B Lancer bombers came from Guam and the U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagle fighter escorts came from Okinawa, Japan. It said the operation showed the seriousness with which it took North Korea's "reckless behavior."

The patrols came after officials and experts said a small earthquake near North Korea's nuclear test site on Saturday was probably not man-made, easing fears Pyongyang had exploded another nuclear bomb just weeks after its last one.

North Korea's Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho warned on Thursday that North Korea could consider a hydrogen bomb test of an unprecedented scale over the Pacific.

Ri did not respond on Saturday when asked by reporters whether North Korea had conducted a new nuclear test.

China's Earthquake Administration said the quake was not a nuclear explosion and had the characteristics of a natural tremor.

"We are prepared to use the full range of military capabilities to defend the U.S. homeland and our allies." -Dana White, Pentagon spokeswoman

The CTBTO, or Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty Organization, which monitors nuclear tests, and officials of the South Korean meteorological agency also said they believed it was a natural quake.

A U.S. intelligence official and U.S.-based non-governmental experts said their initial assessment was that the quake was either natural or connected to North Korea's latest and largest nuclear test on Sept.3, and not caused by a new nuclear test.

An official of South Korea's Meteorological Agency said acoustic waves should be detected in the event of a man-made earthquake.

"In this case we saw none. So, as of now, we are categorizing this as a natural earthquake," the official said.

The earthquake, which South Korea's Meteorological Agency put at magnitude 3.0, was detected 49 km from Kilju in North Hamgyong Province, where North Korea's known Punggye-ri nuclear site is located, the official said.

All of North Korea's six nuclear tests registered as earthquakes of magnitude 4.3 or above. The last test registered as a 6.3 magnitude quake.

A secondary tremor detected after that test could have been caused by the collapse of a tunnel at the mountainous site, experts said at the time. Satellite photos after the Sept. 3 quake showed numerous landslides apparently caused by the massive blast, which North Korea said was an advanced hydrogen bomb.

The U.S. Geological Survey said it could not conclusively confirm whether the quake, which it measured at magnitude 3.5, was man-made or natural.

Tensions have continued to rise around the Korean Peninsula since Pyongyang carried out its sixth nuclear test, prompting a new round of U.N. sanctions.

Trump said the United States would "totally destroy" North Korea if it threatened the United States or its allies.

On Thursday, Trump announced new U.S. sanctions that he said allow targeting of companies and institutions that finance and facilitate trade with North Korea.

Earlier on Saturday, China said it will limit exports of refined petroleum products from Oct. 1 and ban exports of condensates and liquefied natural gas immediately to comply with the latest U.N. sanctions. It will also ban imports of textiles from North Korea.

North Korea's nuclear tests to date have all been underground, and experts say an atmospheric test, which would be the first since one by China in 1980, would be proof of the success of its weapons program.