S. Korea, U.S. kick off annual drills amid N. Korea's threat

S. Korea, U.S. kick off annual drills amid N. Korea's threat

South Korean and U.S. troops launched annual joint drills on Monday to ensure their defense readiness against North Korean aggression, officials said, despite warnings from the North that the drills could lead to an "all-out war."

The Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercises are the first regularly scheduled joint drills between Seoul and Washington since the North's deadly artillery strike on Yeonpyeong Island last November, which left four people dead and sharply raised tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Yonhap reported.

The allies said the drills are defensive in nature, but North Korea has always denounced them as a rehearsal for a northward U.S. invasion aimed at toppling its communist regime.

On Sunday, the North's military threatened to retaliate against the drills with a full-scale military attack that would turn Seoul, the South's capital, into a "sea of fire," renewing its harsh rhetoric.

"Now that it has been revealed that the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle joint military maneuvers are to examine the practicability of the adventurous 'plan on local war' against the DPRK (North Korea), the army and people of the DPRK will respond to reckless provocation by the aggressors with an all-out war at any time," the North's Korean People's Army said in a statement.

Officials at the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said they have raised the military alert status across maritime and land borders to cope with a possible provocation from the North.

"So far, no unusual movement by North Korea's military has been detected, but it is observed that the North put its military on a higher alert," a JCS official said.

About 12,800 U.S. troops and 200,000 South Korean troops, including reservists, have joined the 11-day Key Resolve drills, which focus on computer-based simulations. Foal Eagle exercises entail field training that will continue through April 30.

In a statement, the U.S. military stationed in the South said exercise scenarios will focus on crisis management, command and control of alliance forces to "enhance readiness, defend the ROK (South Korea) and respond to any potential situation."

To validate the defensive nature of the drills, international observers from the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission overseeing the cease-fire that ended the 1950-53 Korean War will observe the exercises, the U.S. Forces Korea said.

South Korean officials said a U.S. aircraft carrier would join one of the two exercises, which U.S. military officials here neither confirmed nor denied.

"A U.S. aircraft carrier plans to participate in this year's Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercises, but it has not been decided yet which of the two drills would involve the aircraft carrier," said the JCS official, adding the allies are considering mobilizing the USS Ronald Reagan.

The 97,000-ton Nimitz-class nuclear-powered supercarrier participated into the 2008 Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercises.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula, which is still technically at war because the Korean War ended with a truce, not a peace treaty, remain high after the North's shelling of Yeonpyeong. South Korea also lost 46 sailors last March as a result of the deadly sinking of a warship blamed on the North.

Last week, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told parliament that North Korea could launch a new attack on the South during or after the drills.

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