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South joint drills begin amid North Korea tensions

South joint drills begin amid North Korea tensions

The United States and South Korea kicked off their annual joint military exercises on Monday, while North Korea warned that the drills would deepen tensions on the Korean Peninsula by "throwing fuel onto fire".

The reduced number of USA troops has sparked speculation that the allies might have scaled back the annual exercise in consideration of military tension with North Korea.

United States and South Korean troops have begun annual military drills amid heated warnings by the North that the exercises will worsen tensions in the region.

During the last Ulchi-Freedom Guardian drills, the North and South exchanged fire after two South Korean soldiers were severely injured by a landmine in the DMZ, which the South said was planted by North Korean infiltrators the night before.

Out of the 17,500 USA service members who are going to participate, about 3,000 coming from off-peninsula for the exercise that will start on August 21 and end on August 31.

The exercise is "a regularly scheduled, annual exercise and is the culmination of many months of planning", Marine Lt Colonel Christopher Logan, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement earlier this week. North Korea, however, has long viewed the exercises as rehearsals for invasion.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un has been briefed on military's plans to launch missiles into waters near Guam as part of an effort to create "enveloping fire" near the U.S. military hub in the Pacific.

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In an unusual gesture, three top US military commanders - Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris, Strategic Command head Gen. John Hyten and Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves - will observe the command-post exercise in person.

But the threats triggered a stern warning from Washington.

However, on Sunday Defense Secretary Jim Mattis denied that North Korea's objections factored into the reduced number of troops and assets in this year's war games.

In turn, Mr Kim has threatened to fire missiles towards the U.S. territory of Guam in the Pacific Ocean.

Around 17,500 U.S. troops will participate in the drills - a cutback from previous year. During last year's Ulchi drills, North Korea test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile that flew about 500 kilometres (310 miles) in the longest flight by that type of weapon. However, the United States and South Korea maintain they are purely defensive. And, of course, the tensions were ratcheted up further when President Donald Trump threatened North Korea with fire and fury. About seven-thousand-500 fewer troops will take part in this year's exercise compared to last year. China and Russian Federation both support an idea known around here as freeze for freeze, suggesting that the US and South Korea should freeze its annual exercises in exchange for Pyongyang halting or putting a pause on its nuclear and missile tests. The exercises include computer simulations carried out in a large bunker south of Seoul meant to check the allies' readiness to repel aggressions by the North. So far, the US and South Korea have rejected this idea outright, arguing it creates a false equivalence. Is that seen as a likely thing at all, right now?

GREENE: OK, that is NPR's Elise Hu, who is our correspondent based in Seoul.


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