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SKorea, US Troops to Begin Exercises   02/28 06:13

   

   SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korean and U.S. troops will begin their 
expanded annual military drills next week in response to North Korea's evolving 
nuclear threats, the two countries said Wednesday, a move that will likely 
enrage North Korea because it views its rivals' joint training as an invasion 
rehearsal.

   In recent months, North Korea has inflamed animosities on the Korean 
Peninsula with fiery rhetoric and continued missile tests. While it's unlikely 
for North Korea to launch full-blown attacks against South Korea and the U.S., 
observers say the North could still stage limited provocations along the tense 
border with South Korea.

   On Wednesday, the South Korea and U.S. militaries jointly announced that the 
allies will conduct Freedom Shield exercise, a computer-simulated command post 
training, and a variety of separate field training, from March 4-14.

   Col. Lee Sung-Jun, a spokesperson for South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, 
told reporters that the allies' drills are designed to bolster their joint 
capabilities to prevent North Korea from using its nuclear weapons. He said the 
allies are to carry out 48 field exercises this spring, twice the number 
conducted last year, and that this year's drills would involve air assault, 
live-firing and bombing training.

   "Our military is ready to punish North Korea immediately, strongly and to 
the end in the event of its provocation, and we'll further strengthen our firm 
readiness through the upcoming drills," Lee said.

   Col. Isaac L. Taylor, a spokesperson for the U.S. military, said the allies' 
exercises have been defensive in nature and that there is solid evidence that 
"a high readiness rate" helps ensure deterrence.

   North Korea didn't immediately respond to the drills' announcement. North 
Korea has reacted to previous major South Korea-U.S. military drills with its 
own missile tests.

   North Korea has sharply intensified its weapons testing activities since 
2022 in part of its efforts to expand its nuclear and missile arsenals. This 
year, the North already conducted six rounds of missile tests -- five of them 
reportedly involving cruise missiles -- and other weapons launches.

   Lee, the South Korean military spokesperson, said that the upcoming South 
Korea-U.S. drills would involve training to detect and shoot down North Korean 
cruise missiles. Analysts say North Korea would likely use cruise missiles to 
attack incoming U.S. warships in the event of a conflict, as well as U.S. 
military installations in Japan. The North's weapons tests in 2022 and 2023 
largely focused on ballistic weapons systems.

   Experts say North Korea believes a bigger weapons arsenal would allow it to 
pressure the U.S. and South Korea more effectively to make concessions like 
sanctions relief when diplomacy resumes. They expect North Korea to ramp up its 
testing activities and other provocations this year as both the U.S. and South 
Korea head into major elections.

   South Korea and the U.S. have responded to the North's testing spree with 
expansions of their bilateral military drills and trilateral exercises 
involving Japan. U.S. and South Korean officials have repeatedly warned that 
any nuclear attack by North Korea against them would spell the end of the 
North's government led by Kim Jong Un.

   In a telephone call earlier Wednesday, South Korean Defense Minister Shin 
Wonsik and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin condemned North Korea's missile 
tests and reaffirmed the need to maintain an overwhelming joint defense 
posture, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry. The Pentagon said 
Austin reaffirmed the ironclad U.S. extended deterrence commitment to the 
defense of South Korea.

 
 
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