WASHINGTON - US Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers escorted by fighter jets flew in international airspace over waters east of North Korea on Saturday, in a show of force the Pentagon said demonstrated the range of military options available to US President Donald Trump.
The flight was the farthest north of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea that any US fighter jet or bomber has flown in the 21st century, the Pentagon said.
"This mission is a demonstration of US resolve and a clear message that the President has many military options to defeat any threat," said Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White, calling North Korea's weapons program "a grave threat."
"We are prepared to use the full range of military capabilities to defend the US homeland and our allies."
The flight follows a week of heightened rhetoric from Washington and Pyongyang, with Trump and Kim Jong Un trading insults. Trump called the North Korean leader a "madman" on Friday, a day after Kim dubbed him a "mentally deranged US dotard."
Pyongyang conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test on September 3 and has launched dozens of missiles this year as it accelerates a program aimed at enabling it to target the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile. The North has threatened to test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific.
The Pentagon said the B-1B Lancer bombers came from Guam and the US Air Force F-15C Eagle fighter escorts came from Okinawa, Japan. It said the operation showed the seriousness with which it took North Korea's "reckless behavior."
North Korean FM calls Trump 'mentally deranged'
The patrols were disclosed shortly before North Korea's Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho addressed the United Nations, saying Trump had made "our rockets' visit to the entire US mainland inevitable" by calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un "rocket man."
He rejected Trump's claims Kim was on "a suicide mission," saying "none other than Trump himself is on a suicide mission" and added that if innocent Americans are harmed by suicide attacks, "Trump will be held totally responsible."
Ri also called Trump "a mentally deranged person full of megalomania" who is holding "the nuclear button."
"Through such a prolonged and arduous struggle, now we are finally only a few steps away from the final gate of completion of the state nuclear force," Ri told the annual gathering of world leaders for the United Nations General Assembly.
"It is only a forlorn hope to consider any chance that the DPRK (North Korea) would be shaken an inch or change its stance due to the harsher sanctions by the hostile forces," he said.
China says North Korea earthquake not man-made
The American show of force came after officials and experts said a small earthquake near North Korea's nuclear test site on Saturday was probably not man-made, easing fears Pyongyang had exploded another nuclear bomb just weeks after its last one.
North Korea's Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho warned on Thursday that North Korea could consider a hydrogen bomb test of an unprecedented scale over the Pacific.
Ri did not respond on Saturday when asked by reporters whether North Korea had conducted a new nuclear test.
North Korea has said it intends to build a missile capable of striking all parts of the United States with a nuclear bomb. Trump has said he won't allow it, although the US so far has not used military force to impede the North's progress.
Tensions have continued to rise around the Korean Peninsula since Pyongyang carried out its sixth nuclear test, prompting a new round of UN sanctions.
Trump said the United States would "totally destroy" North Korea if it threatened the United States or its allies.
On Thursday Trump announced new US sanctions that he said allow targeting of companies and institutions that finance and facilitate trade with North Korea.
"North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile development is a grave threat to peace and security in our world and it is unacceptable that others financially support this criminal, rogue regime," Trump said as he joined Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a meeting in New York.
Hours later, Kim responded by saying Trump was "deranged."
Earlier on Saturday, China said it will limit exports of refined petroleum products from October 1 and ban exports of condensates and liquefied natural gas immediately to comply with the latest UN sanctions. It will also ban imports of textiles from North Korea.
North Korea's nuclear tests to date have all been underground, and experts say an atmospheric test, which would be the first since one by China in 1980, would be proof of the success of its weapons program.