The US and South Korea have begun their biggest combined military training in years as they heighten their defence posturing against a growing North Korean nuclear threat.
The drills could draw anger from Pyongyang, which has pushed its weapons testing activity to a record pace this year while repeatedly threatening conflicts with Seoul and Washington amid a prolonged stalemate in diplomacy.
The Ulchi Freedom Shield exercises will continue through 1 September in South Korea and include field exercises involving aircraft, warships, tanks and potentially tens of thousands of troops.
But North Korea portrays the exercises as rehearsals for an invasion.
Cho Joong-hoon, a spokesperson of South Korea’sUnification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said the South has not immediately detected any unusual activities or signs from the North.
The United States and South Korea had canceled some of their regular drills and reduced others to computer simulations in recent years to create space for diplomacy with North Korea – and because of COVID-19 concerns.
The drills came after North Korea last week dismissed South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s offer to exchange denuclearisation steps and economic benefits.
Kim Yo Jong – the increasingly powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – described Mr Yoon’s proposal as foolish and stressed the North has no intentions to barter away an arsenal her brother apparently sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.
She harshly criticised Mr Yoon for continuing military exercises with the US and also for Seoul’s failure to stop South Korean civilian activists from flying anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets and other “dirty waste” across the border by balloon.
She also ridiculed US-South Korean capabilities for monitoring the North’s missile activity, insisting Seoul wrongly identified the launch location of the North’s latest missile tests last Wednesday, hours before Mr Yoon at a news conference urged Pyongyang to return to diplomacy.
Ms Kim earlier this month warned of “deadly” retaliation against South Korea over a recent North Korean COVID-19 outbreak, which Pyongyang dubiously claims was caused by leaflets and other objects floated by southern activists.
There are concerns the threat portends a provocation which might include a nuclear or missile test or even border skirmishes, and that the North may try to raise tensions sometime around the allied drills.