Last week’s headline was déjà vu all over again: “US flying B-52s over South Korea.” The story explained that “training missions” will “highlight Washington’s commitment to defend an ally amid rising tensions with North Korea.” Although the B-52s involved are not armed with nuclear warheads, the Pentagon emphasized the bomber’s role in the “nuclear umbrella” that reassures South Korea and Japan in the face of North Korea’s recent belligerence. A December missile launch and Pyongyang’s third nuclear test last month prompted a new round of UN sanctions. North Korea abruptly “declared invalid” the truce that ended the Korean War, and Kim Jong Un, the eccentric 30-year-old leader, threatened war.
If, nearly a generation after the end of the Cold War, the Korean flashpoint seems fossilized, so does Washington’s response. Is there really nothing for the United States to do but scramble B-52s? The bomber is itself an astonishingly long-lived relic of the Cold War — but it is also a personal icon of my own.