WASHINGTON -- The American military on Thursday carried out a rare long-range mission over the Korean Peninsula, sending two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers on a practice sortie over South Korea, underscoring Washington's commitment to defend its ally amid rising tensions with North Korea.
The two B-2 Spirit bombers showed the United States' ability to "provide extended deterrence to our allies in the Asia-Pacific region" and to "conduct long-range, precision strikes quickly and at will," the American command in the South Korean capital, Seoul, said in a statement.
This mission was the first time the bat-winged B-2s were launched toward the Korean Peninsula on a nonstop, round-trip mission from the United States. The bombers dropped inert munitions, not live explosives, on a range off South Korea's coast.
While the mock bombing run was part of a previously planned joint exercise between South Korean and American forces, it came at a time of rising rhetorical tension with the North. At a Pentagon news conference on Thursday, senior officials made clear that the mission was intended to serve as a deterrent to North Korea -- and to reassure South Korea and Japan, both allies.
"The reaction to the B-2 that we're most concerned about is not necessarily the reaction it might elicit in North Korea, but rather among our Japanese and Korean allies," Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during the news conference. "Those exercises are mostly to assure our allies that they can count on us to be prepared and to help them deter conflict."
As the mission was being announced in an official statement, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel conferred with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Kwan-jin, on the phone, reaffirming the United States' "unwavering" commitment to defend the South.
In response to the United States mission, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, convened an urgent operational meeting of his Korean People's Army's top command early Friday and ordered it to prepare its rockets "so that they may strike any time the U.S. mainland, its military bases in the operational theaters in the Pacific, including Hawaii and Guam, and those in South Korea," the North's official Korean Central News Agency reported.
American officials continued to criticize North Korea for the provocative language, but noted that the latest threat was, in essence, a repetition of statements issued over recent days that the North's artillery and missile forces were being put on higher alert.
After suffering from the American carpet-bombing during the Korean War, North Korea remains sensitive about American bombers. It keeps most of its key military installations underground, and its war cries typically reach a frenetic pitch when American bombers fly over South Korea during military exercises. The resulting fear and anti-American sentiment is used by the government to make people rally behind the North's "military first" leadership.
Both B-52 and B-2 planes can launch nuclear-armed cruise missiles. The Pentagon used the training sorties over the Korean Peninsula to highlight the role the long-distance strategic bombers play as part of Washington's "nuclear umbrella" over South Korea and Japan. In South Korea, North Korea's successful launching of a three-stage rocket in December and its nuclear test last month were unsettling enough that several right-wing politicians began calling on their government to build nuclear arms.
North Korea has escalated its bellicose talk since a Feb. 12 nuclear test. It threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the United States and South Korea for conducting joint military drills and supporting United Nations sanctions against the North.
Thom Shanker reported from Washington, and Choe Sang-Hun from Seoul, South Korea.
Correction: March 28, 2013, Thursday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated, based on information from the Pentagon, the last time a B2 bomber training mission flew over South Korea. It is unclear if such an exercise had ever taken place, the Pentagon said later; it did not occur in 2000.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.