U.S. and South Korea kick off joint war games despite North threats

AFP-JIJI, Kyodo, AP, Reuters

Seoul and Washington began annual war games Monday, with South Korean President Moon Jae In warning the nuclear-armed North not to use them as an excuse to perpetuate the “vicious cycle” of tensions.

Tens of thousands of South Korean and U.S. troops are taking part in the Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint military drills, a largely computer-simulated exercise that runs for two weeks in the South.

The drills, to run through Aug. 31, are apparently being conducted in locations such as a U.S. military base in Yongsan, Seoul, but not made public. Mainly involving computer simulation, the exercise is designed to prepare for a possible attack by North Korea.

The annual drills are viewed by nuclear-armed Pyongyang as a highly provocative rehearsal for invasion, and it always meets them with threats of strong military counteraction.

Only weeks ago it said it was considering firing a salvo of missiles toward the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.

Moon described the exercises as “purely defensive in nature” and warned Pyongyang it “must not use it as an excuse to launch provocations that will worsen the situation.”

“North Korea must understand its repeated provocations are what is forcing South Korea and the U.S. to conduct the joint defensive drills, which in turn, keeps the vicious cycle going,” Moon told a Cabinet meeting.

The U.S. also describes them as “defensive in nature”, a term North Korean state media has dismissed as a “deceptive mask.”

“It’s to prepare if something big were to occur and we needed to protect ROK,” said Michelle Thomas, a U.S. military spokeswoman, referring to South Korea by its official name, the Republic of Korea.

North Korea typically responds to South Korea-U.S. military exercises with weapons tests and a string of belligerent rhetoric. During last year’s UFG drills, North Korea test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile that flew about 500 kilometers (310 miles) in the longest flight by that type of weapon. Days after the drills, the North carried out its fifth and biggest nuclear test to date.

Last month, Pyongyang tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles that appeared to bring much of the U.S. within range.

That sparked a grim warning by U.S. President Donald Trump that Washington could rain “fire and fury” on the North.

Leader Kim Jong Un last week delayed the Guam strike plan, but warned it could go ahead depending on Washington’s next move.

China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, has urged the United States and South Korea to scrap the exercises. Russia has also asked for the drills to stop but the U.S. has not backed down.

While the allies are pushing ahead with the exercises that date back to 1976, around 17,500 U.S. troops will participate in the drills — a cutback from last year.

South Korean media reports have said the U.S. was considering scrapping a plan to bring in two aircraft carriers to the peninsula.

But U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said Sunday the smaller troop numbers were “by design to achieve the exercise objectives,” denying suggestions Washington had cut them back to try to ease tensions with Pyongyang.

“This right now is an exercise to make certain that we’re ready to defend South Korea and our allies over there,” Mattis told reporters aboard an aircraft flying to the Jordanian capital of Amman.

The top U.S. military commander in the Asia-Pacific region arrived in Seoul on Sunday to observe the exercise.

At a meeting with South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo on Sunday, Adm. Harry Harris said it is more important than ever to maintain a strong combined defense posture against North Korea’s rapid development of nuclear bombs and missiles, according to the Yonhap news agency.

Harris has been joined by U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, while Samuel Greaves, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, is also expected to visit South Korea later this week.

On the eve of the UFG drills, North Korea said the U.S. was “pouring gasoline on fire.”

In a commentary carried by the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper, the North warned of an “uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war” on the peninsula, which would entangle the U.S. mainland.

“If the United States is lost in a fantasy that war on the peninsula is at somebody else’s doorstep far away from them across the Pacific, it is far more mistaken than ever.”