S Korea scrambles warplanes as 180 North Korean aircraft detected

The large presence of North Korean fighters and bombers prompted South Korea to mobilise 80 military aircraft.

South Korea scrambled 80 military aircraft, including advanced F-35 fighter jets, after detecting 180 North Korean warplanes flying within North Korean territory – the latest defiant show of military strength by the nuclear-armed country.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said on Friday the North Korean warplanes were detected in various areas inland and along the country’s eastern and western coasts, but they did not come particularly close to the inter-Korean border.

None of those planes breached the South Korean military’s virtual “tactical action” line, which is designated to be located 20-50km (12-31 miles) north of the two countries’ land and sea boundaries. The action line is for monitoring purposes to give the South enough time to respond to provocations or attacks.

The South scrambled 80 of its warplanes, including an unspecified number of F35 fighters, but there were no immediate reports of incidents involving the two air forces.

The JCS said South Korean forces were “maintaining a firm readiness posture for further provocations” and monitoring the situation in coordination with the United States.

Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from the South Korean capital, Seoul, said some of the North Korean aircraft movements had been close enough to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas to trigger the scrambling of South Korean jets in response.

“The South Korean military has announced that during the day – from late morning local time through to mid-afternoon here – they have been detecting flight by around 180 military aircraft of different types in North Korea – right across the breadth of the North Korean part of the peninsula,” he said.

The Korean People's Airforce holding a military drill in an undisclosed location in this photo released in 2013 by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) [File: KCNA/AFP]
The Korean People’s Army Air Force holding a military drill in an undisclosed location in this photo released in 2013 by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency [File: KCNA/AFP]

Months of tension between North Korea and allies South Korea and the US appears to be reaching a new level as Pyongyang moves to demonstrate its opposition to ongoing military exercises south of its borders, while also showcasing its new military firepower.

‘Uncontrollable phase’

North Korea had warned Seoul and Washington that their decision this week to hold the “Vigilant Storm” joint military air drills would receive a response.

When South Korea and the US announced on Thursday they were extending the Vigilant Storm exercises by a day in response to North Korea’s earlier missile launches, an official in Pyongyang warned that the situation had entered a dangerous phase.

“It is a very dangerous and false choice,” Pak Jong-chon, secretary of the Central Committee of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, said of the decision to extend the drills.

“The irresponsible decision of the US and South Korea is shoving the present situation, caused by provocative military acts of the allied forces, to an uncontrollable phase,” he said, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

The Vigilant Storm drills – which began on Monday and are now scheduled to end on Saturday – involve some 240 fighter jets and other military aircraft conducting about 1,600 joint missions. The air drills followed after the South Korean military wrapped up the 12-day Hoguk 22 field exercises, in which an undisclosed number of US military personnel had participated.

North Korea is vehemently opposed to such training exercises, saying the military drills are preparing for an eventual attack on its territory.

In a visit described as “highly choreographed” amid the tension on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea’s Minister of Defence Lee Jong-sup toured a US airbase on Thursday with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Yonhap reported.

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and South Korea's Minister of National Defence Lee Jong-sup talk in front of a B-1 bomber during a visit to Andrews Air Force Base on November 3, 2022 [Mandel Ngan/pool/AP]
Austin and South Korea’s Defence Minister Lee Jong-sup talk in front of a B-1 bomber during a visit to Andrews Air Force Base on November 3, 2022 [Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP]

The tour by the defence chiefs of the US Air Force’s Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, which is home to nuclear-capable B-1B and B-52 bombers, was an opportunity to “highlight America’s military might amid evolving North Korean threats”, Yonhap reported.

During the visit, the US defence secretary “underscored Washington’s ‘ironclad’ security commitment to the defence of the South”, Yonhap said.

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