US and South Korea kick off annual military drills amid Pyongyang's threats

South Korean president warns the North against using exercises as a pretext to aggravate tensions.

US and South Korea practice virtual war against PyongyangReuters, CNN

The US and South Korea have begun their annual drill, which usually triggers a war of words in the divided Korean peninsula. The computer-simulated exercises, codenamed Ulchi Freedom Guardian, kicked off on Monday, 21 August, and will go on for 10 days.

These annuals drills are often heavily criticised by North Korea, which considers such events as preparation for an actual invasion against the Kim Jong-un regime. Both the US and South Korea strongly defend the exercises arguing they are necessary measures to check their defence readiness.

This is also the first such major military exercise conducted by Washington and Seoul after the North launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) in quick succession in July, and threatened to launch an attack on the US territory of Guam. The US and South Korea are pressing ahead with the exercise despite Russia and China earlier calling on the allies to give it a break to cool the situation.

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Tens of thousands of American and South Korean troops will participate in the event, which will be directly overseen by three top US military commanders. The presence of Pacific Command chief Admiral Harry Harris, Strategic Command head General John Hyten and Missile Defense Agency Director Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves is seen as an extraordinary gesture in terms of military manoeuvres in the region. The US has also reduced the number of troops from the usual 25,000 to 17,500.

Other members of the United Nations Command — Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Britain — have also sent their forces but the drills are majorly led by the US and South Korea.

Meanwhile, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has also warned his rival neighbour against using the exercises as a pretext for more provocation. "The Ulchi exercise is a defensive drill conducted annually. We have no intention at all to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The Ulchi exercise is aimed at checking on defense readiness aimed at protecting the lives and property of our people," said Moon.

"North Korea must understand that it is because of its repeated provocations that South Korea and the US have to conduct defensive exercises, which in turn keeps the vicious cycle going," he added.

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