Seoul, South Korea- The United States and South Korea began their largest joint military exercise in years on Monday as they strengthened their defensive posture against the growing North Korean nuclear threat.
The drills could provoke an angry response from North Korea, which has pushed its weapons testing activity to a record pace this year while repeatedly threatening clashes with Seoul and Washington amid a long-running diplomatic standoff.
Ulchi Freedom Shield will run until September 1 in South Korea and will include field exercises involving aircraft, warships, tanks and possibly tens of thousands of troops.
While Washington and Seoul call their exercises defensive, North Korea describes them as an invasion exercise that justifies the development of its nuclear weapons and missiles.
Cho Jong-hoon, spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said the South did not immediately detect any unusual activity or signals from North Korea.
The United States and South Korea have canceled some regular drills and reduced others to computer simulations in recent years to make way for diplomacy with North Korea and over COVID-19 concerns.
The Ulchi Freedom Shield, which began with a four-day South Korean civil defense training program led by government employees, is said to include combined attack simulations, frontline weapon reinforcements , fuel and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction.
The drills come after North Korea last week rejected South Korean President Yoon Seok-yeol’s offer to swap denuclearization measures and economic benefits, accusing Seoul of recycling proposals long rejected by Pyongyang.
Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, called Yoon’s suggestion stupid and stressed that North Korea has no intention of trading away an arsenal that her brother apparently considers the best guarantee of survival.
She sharply criticized Yoon for continuing military exercises with the United States and also for Seoul’s failure to stop South Korean civilian activists from throwing anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets and other “dirty trash” at across the border in a balloon.
He also mocked the US and South Korea’s abilities to monitor North Korea’s missile activity, insisting that Seoul had wrongly located the launch site for the latest missile tests. North Koreans last Wednesday, hours before Yoon urged Pyongyang at a press conference to return to diplomacy.
Earlier this month, Kim Yo Jong warned of “deadly” retaliation against South Korea over North Korea’s recent outbreak of COVID-19, which Pyongyang said was caused by leaflets and to other elements put forward by activists from the South. There are fears the threat portends a provocation that could include a nuclear or missile test or even a border skirmish, and that the North could try to stoke tensions at some point over allied exercises.
In an interview with Associated Press TV last month, Choi Jin, deputy director of a think tank run by North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, said the United States and South Korea would face “unprecedented” security problems if they did not abandon hostile military pressure. Campaign against North Korea, including joint military exercises.
Two suspected cruise missile launches last week accelerated a record pace of North Korean missile testing in 2022, which included more than 30 ballistic launches, including the country’s first ICBM demonstration in nearly five years.
North Korea’s increased testing activity underscores its dual intent to bolster its arsenal and coerce the United States into accepting the North’s idea of nuclear power so it can negotiate economic and security in a position of strength, according to experts.
Kim Jong Un could raise the issue as soon as there are indications that North Korea is preparing to carry out its first nuclear test since September 2017, when it claimed to have developed a thermonuclear weapon to equip its ICBMs.