Two B-2 stealth bombers flew from a base in the American heartland, dropped test charges on targets near North Korea and returned to the U.S. on Thursday, as Washington mounted its most overt display of military force amid months of escalating tensions with North Korea.


The B-2s, the most advanced heavy bombers in the U.S. arsenal, flew low over the South Korean city of Osan before dropping eight dummy munitions on a South Korean bombing range as part of annual joint exercises with South Korea's military. The dummies were inert versions of 2,000-pound bombs, one of the bigger conventional weapons in the U.S. arsenal. The B-2 can also carry nuclear payloads.
The maneuvers illustrated the growing concern inside the Obama administration that North Korea and its 30-year-old leader, Kim Jong Eun, may move beyond threats that have been commonplace against the U.S., South Korea and other allies in Asia. The fear is that Mr. Kim will continue with a string of military provocations that run the risk of sparking a major security crisis in Northeast Asia.

In North Korea, Mr. Kim ordered rockets to be on standby to strike U.S. bases in South Korea and the Pacific, as well as the U.S. mainland, state media reported. The order came after Mr. Kim and senior military officials held an emergency meeting in the early hours Friday, according North Korea's official KCNA agency.

The B-2 flights were "an ultimatum that [the U.S.] will ignite a nuclear war at any cost on the Korean Peninsula," Mr. Kim said at the meeting. KCNA said the leader "said he has judged the time has come to settle accounts with the U.S. imperialists in view of the prevailing situation."
Tensions Escalate

North Korea Cuts Hotline
North Korea said it was severing a military hot line with South Korea and showered invective on Seoul's new leader, even as Seoul pursued plans to improve relations with the North.

The hotine is used to coordinate traffic heading from the South into the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a few miles inside the North. So far, traffic heading from the South into the industrial zone has been unaffected.

North Korea says its rocket and artillery forces are on the 'highest alert' to strike the U.S. and other targets. The WSJ's Alastair Gale talks to Michael Arnold about the seriousness of Pyongyang's threats.
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 U.S. officials said President Barack Obama approved Thursday's deployment of the stealth bombers, which could be seen flying over the peninsula and whose mission was confirmed by U.S. military officials in the U.S. and South Korea. His decision, they said, came after their use was reviewed by top national security officials on a recommendation from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

South Korean officials had asked for such a demonstration of U.S. "extended deterrence"—a military term used for nuclear force, defense officials said.

The advanced bombers' training run from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri was the first such mission over South Korea to have been made public by the U.S. It was also the first time the craft have flown round trip from the U.S. to the Korean peninsula for such an exercise. It followed similar missions earlier this month by B-52 bombers during the annual U.S.-South Korean war games.

The flights were aimed at establishing clear military limits for Mr. Kim and his generals, senior U.S. officials said, at a time when they have shown an increasing willingness to challenge American military power in Asia.

Since late last year, Pyongyang successfully tested a long-range missile for the first time and conducted its third nuclear-weapons test, U.S. officials said. In recent days, Mr. Kim's government cut communication lines to U.S. and South Korean forces and threatened to abrogate the armistice agreement that has maintained a truce on the peninsula since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

"We have to take seriously every provocative, bellicose word and action that this new young leader has taken so far since he's come to power," Defense Secretary Hagel said Thursday at the Pentagon. "The actions they've taken and the words he's used are not going to project a more responsible, accountable relationship."

The Pentagon struggled over the decision to deploy the bombers as part of the war games, called Foal Eagle, according to U.S. officials.

Some U.S. officials argued that the bomber flights would be unduly provocative and akin to recent North Korean actions, which these officials said have irresponsibly ratcheted up tensions. Defense officials acknowledged that North Korean military officers are particularly agitated by bomber flights because of memories of the destruction wrought from the air during the Korean War.

Other administration officials argued in favor of a strong show of force, according to senior defense officials. The U.S. defense secretary said he believed the bomber flights would calm the situation.

"I don't think we're poking back or responding," Mr. Hagel said. "The North Koreans have to understand that what they're doing is very dangerous."

South Korean soldiers stand guard at the border with North Korea.

North Korea's provocations in Asia have emerged as another national security challenge for the Obama administration, which is seeking to end the war in Afghanistan; is contemplating military action to end sectarian strife in Syria; and is seeking to devise strategies to contain Iran's growing nuclear capabilities. U.S. officials acknowledge that North Korea's nuclear program is now far more advanced than Tehran's.

Mr. Obama took office in 2009 pledging to engage diplomatically with Washington's international antagonists, including the governments in Iran, Syria and North Korea. But the White House was stung by Pyongyang, which has snubbed its overtures.

The Obama administration is particularly uncertain about how to respond to Mr. Kim, who took power from his late father, Kim Jong Il, only 16 months ago, according to administration officials.

The White House initially hoped that the younger Kim, who studied at a boarding school in Switzerland, would prove more willing to engage the West and promote economic and political reforms in his country. In recent months, senior executives from Google Inc. GOOG -1.06% and the former American basketball star, Dennis Rodman, have visited Pyongyang.

U.S. defense officials and Asia experts, however, now believe that Mr. Kim, in an effort to consolidate his power in the North, is proving more willing to pursue military adventurism than his father. They said they believed that many of Pyongyang's recent actions were aimed at North Korea's domestic audience and to show Mr. Kim as a strong leader willing to confront his country's historic enemy.

Last year, the State Department announced an agreement with Pyongyang for the delivery of food aid to North Korea in exchange for steps to contain its nuclear program. But just days after the proposed deal, the North announced and eventually executed a long-range missile test. Pyongyang argued it had launched a satellite as part of its civilian space program.

Obama administration officials have said they have no current intention of re-engaging with the North. Instead, the White House has pursued a policy of heightened economic sanctions against the communist country, both unilaterally and through the United Nations; new efforts to develop missile defense in Asia; and new measures to develop joint-military capabilities with South Korea and Japan.

Longtime North Korea experts said they believed Mr. Kim might ratchet down his rhetoric in the coming weeks to avoid a direct confrontation with Washington. They also pointed out that rhetoric out of North Korea is often heightened around this time of year—when North Korea holds its annual legislative session and the South and U.S. hold military exercises—but often settles down later.

But they said they also feared that the U.S. and North Korea are now on a course with no clear path toward de-escalation.

"We are in a vicious cycle," said Evans Revere, a former senior State Department official who now works on Asia issues at the Brookings Institution. "Even if things calm down after the current U.S.-South Korea exercise, we will still be at a higher level of tension than in the past."

The B-2s, escorted by two F-15s, dropped their dummy munitions at the bombing range on the South Korean island of Jik Do in daylight.

U.S. officials said they didn't believe North Korea could detect the approach of the B-2s but couldn't be certain. They noted that once the bombers passed over the Korean peninsula, they were no longer trying to hide their presence.

"We could fly it at night, but the point was for them to see it," said a U.S. defense official.

The flight was timed, in part, to the anniversary of the 2010 sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, which resulted in the death of 46 South Korean sailors. North Korea has denied it attacked the ship.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the North Koreans appear to have moved naval ships on both coasts as well as artillery on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone north of Seoul. But he said those movements were likely part of normal North Korean military exercises.

"There have been movements. We haven't seen anything that would cause us to believe they are movements other than consistent with historic patterns and training exercises," Gen. Dempsey s

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