The South Korean and US militaries were to begin massive live-fire drills near the border with North Korea yesterday, despite the North’s warning that it would not tolerate what it calls a hostile invasion rehearsal on its doorstep.
Yesterday’s drills, the first of the allies’ five rounds of firing exercises until the middle of next month, mark 70 years since the establishment of the military alliance between Seoul and Washington.
North Korea has typically reacted to such major South Korean-US exercises with missile and other weapons tests.
Since the start of last year, North Korea has test-launched more than 100 missiles, but none since it fired a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile in the middle of last month.
North Korea has said its tests were in response to the expanded military drills between the US and South Korea, but observers have said the North aims to advance its weapons development to wrest concessions from its rivals in eventual diplomacy.
The US-South Korean firing exercises, called “combined annihilation firepower drills,” would be the biggest of their kind.
The drills have been held 11 times since they began in 1977, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense said.
This year’s drills are to involve advanced stealth fighter jets, attack helicopters, tanks and multiple rocket launch systems from South Korea and the US, the ministry said.
It was not immediately known how many troops would take part in the drills, but previous exercises in 2017 — the most recent ones before this year — drew about 2,000 soldiers and 250 weapons assets from both countries.
An earlier ministry statement said that the drills are meant to enhance the allies’ combined operational performance capabilities.
South Korea and the US would seek to establish “the overwhelming deterrence and response capabilities” to cope with North Korean nuclear and missile threats, it said.
On Friday last week, the North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) called the drills “a typical North Korea-targeted war rehearsal.”
It said North Korea “cannot but take a more serious note of the fact that” the drills would be held in an area a few kilometers from its frontier.
The KCNA said the US and South Korea would face unspecified “corresponding responses” over their series of large-scale, provocative drills.
Earlier this year, the South Korean and US militaries conducted their biggest field exercises in five years.
The US sent the nuclear-powered USS Nimitz aircraft carrier and nuclear-capable bombers for joint exercises with South Korea.
North Korea could use the South Korea-US drills as a pretext to resume testing activities to attain its stated goal of modernizing its weapons arsenals, Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy analyst Moon Seong-mook said.
Domestic issues such as North Korea’s push to increase agricultural production amid the rice-planting season could still affect its decision on weapons tests, he said.
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