Tens of thousands of S. Korean, US soldiers launch drills

Despite N. Korean warnings of "merciless retaliation," South reports no suspicious activity.

South Korean veterans 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
South Korean veterans 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Despite North Korea's warning of "merciless" retaliation, tens of thousands of South Korean and the US troops launched their annual joint military drills on Monday.
The 11-day drills, dubbed Ulchi Freedom Guardian, are computer-simulated war games that involve about 56,000 South Korean soldiers and 30,000 US troops in South Korea and abroad, South Korea's Defense Ministry and the US command in Seoul said Monday.
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North Korea threatened Sunday to respond to the drills with "the severest punishment no one has ever met in the world." It did not elaborate on specifics.
South Korea's Defense Ministry said Monday it was keeping a close watch on North Korea and had spotted no suspicious activity.
The exercises follow massive joint naval drills last month off South Korea's east coast that Washington and Seoul said were a show of unity following the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in March. The allies blame North Korea for the torpedo attack that killed 46 sailors. Pyongyang denies involvement.
Pyongyang — which vowed harsh retaliation for those drills as well — has for years threatened the South with destruction, though it has never followed through with an all-out military assault since the Korean War ended in 1953.
The Korean peninsula technically remains in a state of war because that conflict ended with an cease-fire, not a peace treaty. The US stations about 28,500 troops in South Korea and tens of thousands more in the region.
Seoul and Washington say the routine military drills are purely defensive, while North Korea calls them preparation for an attack.
"It is another grave military provocation aimed at ... igniting a nuclear war" against North Korea, Pyongyang's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary carried Monday by the official Korean Central News Agency.
Earlier this month, South Korea also carried out its own naval drills near the tense western Korean sea border where the Cheonan warship went down, drawing a barrage of artillery rounds from North Korea.
The Ulchi Freedom exercises are designed to improve the allies' joint capability to defend the South and respond to any potential provocations, the US military said in a statement last month.
"We can prevent a war and maintain peace when we get thoroughly prepared," South Korean President Lee Myung-bak told a Cabinet meeting Monday. "We have been doing the Ulchi drills every year but the people may feel uneasy because the drills are taking place at a time of heightened inter-Korean tension following the Cheonan incident."
On Sunday, Lee urged North Korea to abandon military provocation and make a "courageous change" toward peace, and he outlined a path for the peninsula's unification. Lee — in a speech marking the 65th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japan's colonial rule — proposed a three-stage unification process, in which the two countries achieve peace and economic integration before becoming a "community of the Korean nation."
North Koreans also marked Liberation Day by paying respect to a huge statue of the late founder of their country, Kim Il Sung. Streams of soldiers, ruling Workers' Party officials and ordinary citizens offered bouquets of flowers and bowed deeply before Kim's statue, according to the North's state media.