U.S. and South Korean forces began joint drills Monday amid warnings of war from North Korea.
The Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises are annual drills that are defensive nature. “It’s to prepare if something big were to occur and we needed to protect [South Korea],” a U.S. military spokeswoman told Reuters. The North Koreans, however, are not convinced and claim the allies are preparing to invade the North.
North Korean state media warned Sunday that the exercises are “reckless behavior driving the situation into the uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war,” according to CNN.
Pyongyang also threatened “merciless strikes” on U.S. targets if it detects signs of imminent attack.
“The Korean People’s Army is keeping a high alert, fully ready to contain the enemies. It will take resolute steps the moment even a slight sign of the preventive war is spotted,” the Rodong Sinmun, the paper of the ruling party, declared, asserting that North Korea is the “strongest possessor” of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
While North Korea possess an ICBM — the Hwasong-14 — that can theoretically deliver a nuclear payload to targets in the continental U.S., the weapon is inferior to America’s Minuteman III ICBMs, which can deliver a nuclear bomb 20 times more powerful than the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima to North Korea in under half an hour if necessary.
The joint drills began with computer-simulated military exercises, part of a series of training activities scheduled to be carried out between now and the end of the month.
The exercises, which antagonize North Korea every year, come at a time of increased tension between Washington and Pyongyang. Early this month, North Korea warned it was considering a highly-provocative missile test that would involve firing multiple missiles into waters around Guam, home to numerous civilians, as well as many strategic U.S. military assets. President Donald Trump issued his own warning at that same time, informing North Korea that its threats would be met with “fire and fury” like nothing the world has seen before.
The North de-escalated, postponing its plans to “watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees,” North Korean state media said last week. The joint exercises involving U.S. and South Korean forces appear to be causing tensions to flare again on the peninsula, as North Korea is once again issuing threats of destruction and violence.
The U.S. has made it clear that the application of military force is an option if North Korea missteps. “In close collaboration with our allies, there are strong military consequences if the DPRK initiates hostilities,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis said last week.
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