How they see us: What B-2s over South Korea mean

Is the U.S. “adding fuel to the fire” by sending two B-2 stealth bombers close to North Korea’s borders?

Who’s the real belligerent on the Korean Peninsula? asked Alexander Vorontsov in Russia Beyond the Headlines (Russia). Conventional wisdom blames North Korea for the rising tensions; after all, the regime of Kim Jong Un has declared the armistice with South Korea over and threatened to hit the U.S. with a nuclear missile. No doubt, these are breathtakingly bellicose statements—but in the end they’re just words. The U.S., by contrast, is “adding fuel to the fire” by taking “actual steps toward greater escalation of the conflict.” Washington sent nuclear-capable B-52 strategic bombers and two B-2 stealth bombers close to North Korea’s borders, and the U.S. military chose to include “practice bomb runs to imitate nuclear strikes against North Korea” in its war games with South Korea. “This is no longer just rhetoric but actual military activities.”

President Obama had to show some muscle, said the Chosun Ilbo (South Korea) in an editorial. While most South Koreans take the threats from the North in stride, we do appreciate reassurance that “Washington will not tolerate any provocations.” Kim, after all, is of an age when “even people raised in a normal environment often misjudge situations and make reckless mistakes.” All the more vital, then, that the U.S. show its allies “that it is ready and able to deter attacks on them,” said Michael Richardson in The Age (Australia), “and not just by conventional means.” The B-2, “the strategic weapon most feared by North Korea,” is the only bomber that can carry America’s biggest “bunker buster” bomb, the one that could destroy North Korea’s underground nuclear and missile facilities.

The B-2 is indeed a weighty symbol—and not just to North Korea, said Rajaram Panda in Eurasia Review (Spain). The stealth bomber took out the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. The strike was officially labeled an accident, but given that the B-2 has “the most precisely targeted munitions in any military arsenal, accurate to strike within two meters,” many found that explanation implausible. It’s an open secret that Chinese military personnel in the embassy basement were sending intelligence to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, whose military was committing atrocities, and both China and North Korea believe that the embassy was deliberately targeted. Flying B-2s close to the North Korean border is an unmistakable reminder that the U.S. is capable of deploying overwhelming power in the region.

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“The message of the B-2s is therefore addressed as much to Beijing as it is to Pyongyang,” said Frédéric Koller in Le Temps (Switzerland). It’s all part of Obama’s “Asia pivot strategy, which makes the Asian Pacific region the center of American geopolitical concerns.” But sending such a “mixed message” is dangerous. How many wars began with a misunderstanding of an adversary’s signals?

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