South Korean and US forces have kicked off massive joint military drills, which are held annually, as North Korea alerts its armed forces to prepare for a “merciless” counterstrike against potential enemy aggression.
The war games began on Wednesday amid continued tensions on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea and its ally the US hold the drills every year as a signal to the North, which has been rapidly developing a missile and nuclear program.
Some 300,000 South Korean troops and nearly 17,000 American forces along with strategic US warships and air force resources took part in last year’s joint maneuvers. A spokesman for US forces in Korea said the drills this year would be identical to the one held in 2016.
According to the spokesman, about 3,600 US soldiers have so far been deployed to take part in the Foal Eagle drills, which are the first of the two series of war games that will stretch over two months. But he did not provide the total number of the American forces taking part in the maneuvers.
The development comes as scores of protesters staged a rally outside the US Embassy in the South Korean capital of Seoul on Wednesday, expressing opposition to the war games and emphasizing that the drills would “bring the peninsula sharply closer to the brink of a nuclear war.”
South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo also held a phone conversation with his US counterpart James Mattis, “stressing the need to bolster the drills,” according to a statement issued by the ministry. It further quoted Mattis as vowing an “effective and overwhelming response” against any use of nuclear weapons by the North.
North Korea has long slammed the annual war games as provocative rehearsals for an invasion.
On Wednesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited the headquarters of an army unit and praised the troops for their “vigilance against the US and South Korean enemy forces that are making frantic efforts for invasion,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
Kim further instructed the troops to “set up thorough countermeasures of a merciless strike against the enemy’s sudden air assault,” the KCNA report added.
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South Korea’s Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn also vowed on Wednesday that his country would respond strongly to any provocations made by the North and seek tougher UN sanctions against Pyongyang.
“The government will strive to make the North realize the uselessness of its nuclear weapons” through a stronger alliance with the US, including with the deployment of a US missile system, Hwang said in an address marking the anniversary of his country’s independence movement against Japanese colonial rule.
Seoul and Washington agreed last year to install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea to counter what they perceive as the growing missile and nuclear threats from Pyongyang, a plan that has enraged Beijing.