Korea, US begin joint military exercise
Korean and U.S. forces began an annual joint exercise Monday to test and improve their defense posture against North Korea, military officials said, as the communist nation stepped up hostile rhetoric against the maneuvers.
The computer-aided Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) runs from Monday through Aug. 31, mobilizing some 56,000 South Korean troops and about 30,000 U.S. soldiers, including some 3,000 from the U.S. and other bases in the Pacific region, the Combined Forces Command (CFC) said in a statement.
"Ulchi Freedom Guardian is a key exercise in strengthening the readiness of Republic of Korea and U.S. forces," said Gen. James D. Thurman, commander of the U.S. Forces Korea. "It is based on realistic scenarios and enables us to train on our essential tasks with a 'whole of government' approach."
The CFC said troops from seven United Nations Command states -- Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway and France -- also join the simulated exercise as observers.
North Korea has long denounced these joint maneuvers, claiming they amount to a prelude to war. Seoul and Washington have countered that the exercise is defensive in nature.
In late July, the U.N. Command Military Armistice Commission informed Pyongyang through its border village Panmunjom of the exercise dates and the "non-provocative nature" of the training, the CFC said.
Amid heightened tension, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un paid a high-profile visit to a front-line artillery unit responsible for the country's 2010 deadly bombardment of a South Korean island near the tense western sea border.
Kim extolled service members as heroes and told them never to tolerate enemy aggression.
In the event of an enemy attack, Kim said the North should lead "the battle to a sacred war for national reunification, not confining it to a local war" and "turn the west sea into a graveyard of the invaders."
The Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the North's ruling Workers' Party, also denounced the military exercise as a "provocation to our country and people as well as challenge to the peace and justice of humanity" in its commentary on Monday.
"The entire (North Korean) People's Army soldiers and people should tightly gather around beloved marshal Kim Jong-un and be thoroughly prepared to ruthlessly sweep American invaders and South Korean warmongers who try to trigger a war on our fatherland," the newspaper said in the commentary.
On Monday, Seoul's defense ministry said Kim's recent visit to the North's border island of Mudo, close to Yeonpyeong Island that was shelled by the North, shows Pyongyang's constant hostility against the South, and vowed to keep close watch on the communist state.
"Our military is prepared to guard against the enemy's provocation and is ready to sternly retaliate if the enemy provokes again," Kim Min-seok, the defense ministry spokesman, told reporters. "South Korean and U.S. armed forces will thoroughly practice a joint defense posture during the UFG in case of the enemy's provocation."
The Koreas remain technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice. About 28,500 U.S. soldiers are stationed here to deter against the North Korean threat. (Yonhap)