SEOUL, South Korea — The United States and South Korea on Tuesday began joint war games that North Korea has warned would choke off budding diplomacy and drive the Korean peninsula to war.
After months of hostility and threats, diplomats from the United States and the two Koreas have held talks meant to restart long-stalled negotiations to persuade the North to give up its nuclear ambitions. But the 11-day annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills make clear that Seoul and Washington still view Pyongyang as a military threat.
The United States has 28,500 troops regularly stationed in South Korea as a deterrent against North Korean attacks. The U.S. military said this year's drills would take place on the Korean peninsula, the U.S. mainland and in the Pacific, involving more than 80,000 troops from South Korea, the United States and seven countries that sent forces to help the allies in the 1950-53 Korean War.
North Korea, which labels any joint exercises by the allies as preparation for war, has warned for weeks that the drills would obstruct continuing diplomatic efforts to ease tension through dialogue.
"The DPRK is ready for both dialogue and war," North Korea's official media said Tuesday, using the acronym for the country's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The North's official Korean Central News Agency carried a commentary that said the exercises show South Korea's offer for dialogue is "nothing but a cynical ploy to mislead the public opinion."
Last month, a senior North Korean diplomat visited New York and met U.S. officials for talks on ways to restart six-nation nuclear disarmament-for-aid talks. The meetings came after the nuclear envoys of the two Koreas held cordial talks on the sidelines of a regional security forum in Indonesia.
Despite the diplomacy, tension remains high on the Korean peninsula, largely stemming from the North's deadly bombardment of a front-line South Korean island that killed four people last November. The South also holds the North culpable for the deaths of 46 sailors on a South Korean warship that sank in March last year.
Gen. James Thurman, chief of American forces in South Korea, said in a statement that Seoul and Washington are applying lessons "garnered by the alliance's recent experiences with North Korean provocations on the peninsula and past exercises."
On Monday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak offered an olive branch to the North, saying the two countries should work toward "an age of peace and cooperation." But he also warned North Korea would achieve nothing through provocation.
The drills, which seek to mimic various enemy attacks, are computer-assisted and led by officers conducting war games inside command posts separated from the troops.
North Korea reportedly often mobilizes its own war fighting forces in response to U.S.-South Korean drills and incurs heavy economic costs in the process. (AP)