SEOUL, South Korea — The U.S. and South Korea kicked off a new round of war games Monday despite protests from the North, which threatened a pre-emptive nuclear strike.
The annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises come as relations between the two Koreas have sharply deteriorated since North Korea conducted its fourth underground atomic test in January. Tensions spiked again last week when Seoul confirmed that a senior North Korean diplomat had defected from his post at Pyongyang’s embassy in London.
About 25,000 U.S. servicemembers — including 2,500 from areas off the peninsula — and 50,000 South Korean forces will participate in the nearly two-week drills, which are mainly computer simulations.
The U.N. military armistice commission gave the North Koreans advance notice about the exercise, which runs through Sept. 2, and stressed its “nonprovocative nature,” the Combined Forces Command said in a statement.
The U.S. and South Korean militaries regularly hold joint exercises that they insist are for defensive purposes.
“UFG is designed to enhance alliance readiness, protect the region and maintain stability of the Korean Peninsula,” the statement said.
North Korea responded by calling the drills practice for an invasion and warning it would retaliate, in a report carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
“The nuclear warmongers should bear in mind that if they show the slightest sign of aggression on the inviolable land, seas and air where the sovereignty of the DPRK is exercised, it would turn the stronghold of provocation into a heap of ashes through Korean-style preemptive nuclear strike,” the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army was quoted as saying Monday.
“They should properly know that from this moment the first-strike combined units of the KPA keep themselves fully ready to mount a pre-emptive retaliatory strike at all enemy attack groups involved in Ulchi Freedom Guardian," the KCNA report said.
Pyongyang is known for its fiery statements in response to perceived threats, but it has stepped up its rhetoric in recent months. The South Korean government warned over the weekend that the North was expected to carry out “military provocations” surrounding the exercise.
The Americans will join their South Korean counterparts along with participants from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Italy, Philippines, the United Kingdom and New Zealand for the drills, the command said.
Observers from the neutral nations supervisory commission will monitor the exercise to ensure compliance with the armistice agreement, which ended the 1950-53 war instead of a peace treaty.
Military officials declined to give more details about the exercises, citing operational security.
The two countries were pushed to the brink of conflict with events surrounding last year’s UFG after land mines maimed two South Korean soldiers on the heavily militarized border, triggering an exchange of artillery fire. The situation escalated with shows of force by all sides before it was defused by talks on Aug. 25.
This year’s drills follow several months of heightened tensions as North Korea defied international condemnation and tough new U.N. sanctions to conduct several missile tests with varying degrees of success. Pyongyang in turn has been angered over the imposition of U.S. sanctions against its leader, Kim Jong Un, and plans to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system in the South.
The Unification Ministry in Seoul also confirmed last week that the No. 2 diplomat at the North’s embassy in London, Thae Yong Ho, had defected with his family to the South. That prompted North Korea to call Thae a “criminal” and raised fears it would try to strike back with a tit-for-tat attack, such as a kidnapping.
President Park Geun-hye said Monday that Thae’s defection was an indication of cracks in the North Korean regime, although many analysts have cautioned against such conclusions.
"As signs of serious cracks emerge, the likelihood of unrest in the regime is increasing," Park said during a National Security Council session, according to the South Korean news agency Yonhap.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, meanwhile, planned to meet with his Japanese and Chinese counterparts on Tuesday and Wednesday in Tokyo to discuss cooperation and regional and international issues, the ministry said.
Ties have been strained due to disputes over the South China Sea and concern about efforts to enforce sanctions against North Korea, which is a traditional ally of Beijing.