SEOUL — The US military carried out a rare long-range mission over the Korean Peninsula Thursday, sending two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers on a practice bombing 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 US command in the South Korean capital, Seoul, said in a statement.
North Korea’s leader responded to the operation by saying that his rocket forces are ready ‘‘to settle accounts with the US.’’
Kim Jong Un’s comments in a meeting with senior generals early Friday are part of a rising tide of threats meant to highlight anger over the drills and recent UN sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear test.
State media says Kim signed a rocket preparation plan and ordered rockets on standby to strike the US mainland, South Korea, Guam, and Hawaii.
Many analysts say they’ve seen no evidence that Pyongyang’s missiles can hit the US mainland. But it has capable short- and mid-range missiles.
The last time B-2s flew over South Korea was in 2000, but in that exercise the bombers flew from runways on the Pacific island base of Guam. 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 US forces, it came at a time of rising rhetorical tension with the North. At a Pentagon news conference 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.
‘‘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,’’ General 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.
“We, the United States, South Korea, all of the nations in that region of the world are committed to a pathway to peace,’’ Hagel said at the news conference. ‘‘And the North Koreans seem to be headed in a different direction here. So we will unequivocally defend, and we are unequivocally committed to that alliance with South Korea as well as our other allies in that region of the world. And we will be prepared — we have to be prepared — to deal with any eventuality there.’’
After suffering from US carpet-bombing during the Korean War, North Korea remains sensitive about US bombers. It keeps most key military installations underground, and its war cries typically reach a frenetic pitch when US bombers fly over South Korea for military exercises.
Both the B-52 and B-2 can launch nuclear-armed cruise missiles. The Pentagon used their 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.
A news release from the South Korean Defense Ministry on Thursday said the ‘‘extended deterrence’’ that Hagel reaffirmed for South Korea included ‘‘nuclear umbrella’’ and ‘‘missile defense capabilities.’’