- The US has doubled down by ordering provocative B-1 bomber flights near the North Korean border.
- At the same time, Pyongyang has warned that war is right around the corner.
- Both Russia and North Korea have blamed the US for increased tensions.
- The ultimate US goal is to denuclearize North Korea — and deliberate escalation may be part of that.
The US doubled down on provocative bomber flights near the border with North Korea this week, at the same time as Pyongyang asked when, not if, war would break out.
On Wednesday, a B-1B Lancer strategic bomber flew from Guam to carry out simulated bomb runs against North Korean targets at a test range in South Korea.
And on Thursday, two B-1s joined Vigilant Ace, a massive US and South Korea aerial exercise involving 230 aircraft, 12,000 personnel, and the US's top stealth jets.
The US has previously conducted B-1 flights in response to North Korean provocations like missile tests; North Korea has typically responded with vitriol.
For example, after a B-1 flew across North Korea's maritime border in response to intercontinental ballistic missile testing in September, North Korea threatened to shoot down subsequent flights.
But usually the B-1 flights happen on a nearly one-for-one basis. The back-to-back flights, the inclusion of stealth aircraft, and the massive scope of this week's exercise all point to a marked escalation in tensions just a week after North Korea conducted a surprise test of a missile experts say could reach any US city.
Russia, China urge the US to pump the brakes
"The remaining question now is: when will the war break out?" North Korean media said in response to the US's air drills. "We do not wish for a war but shall not hide from it."
China, through its Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, said "we hope all relevant parties can maintain calm and restraint and take steps to alleviate tensions and not provoke each other," according to the Reuters news agency.
Russia blamed the US's exercises with South Korea for escalating tensions and said North Korea was ready to talk.
"North Korea wants above all to talk to the United States about guarantees for its security. We are ready to support that — we are ready to take part in facilitating such negotiations," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, according to Russian media.
But the talks put forward by North Korea were shot down by the State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, who said talks were "not on the table until they are willing to denuclearize."
As it stands, North Korea refuses to negotiate away its nuclear weapons and instead proposes some version of a "freeze for freeze" whereby the US stops military drills and North Korea stops missile tests.
The US national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, on Sunday said the chance for war with North Korea was "increasing every day."
US maximum pressure makes the world uncomfortable
President Donald Trump's administration has laid out a strategy of "maximum pressure" for dealing with North Korea. It entails military, economic, and diplomatic pressure simultaneously applied, with the goal of denuclearization.
There have been several indications that lowering the bar for talks from denuclearization to pausing tests could prompt discussions in short order.
But the US seems determined not to back down. The increased firepower at the Vigilant Ace exercise, the worldwide diplomatic pressure campaign, and the US's refusal to halt legal, above-board military drills in response to North Korea’s illegal missile tests all point to a US administration bent on not just pausing but ending the North Korean conflict.
Implied in the US's maximum-pressure campaign against North Korea is that the situation should feel tense.
The US wants North Korea to fear its military might, its ability to isolate the country from world markets, and its patient resolve to deny half-measures in waiting for denuclearization.
Russia and North Korea blame the US for escalating tensions with its airpower and bomber displays, but for the US, maybe that's the point.