The United States and South Korea have begun their first combined naval war games in five years near the peninsula a day after North Korea carried out another ballistic missile launch amid growing tensions.
South Korea's hawkish President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May, has vowed to beef up military cooperation with Washington despite warnings from Pyongyang, which has significantly bolstered its nuclear arsenal in recent years.
"This exercise was prepared to demonstrate the strong will of the South Korea-US alliance to respond to North Korean provocations," South Korea's navy said in a statement on Monday, shortly after the war games kicked off.
"Through this exercise, we will further improve the ability to conduct joint operations between the naval forces of the two countries," the statement added, quoting senior South Korean navy officer, Kwak Kwang-sub.
It further stated that the four-day war games -- along South Korea's eastern coastline -- will involve more than 20 warships and an assortment of aircraft, which will carry out drills on anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare operations, as well as tactical maneuvers and other maritime military actions.
Yoon has pledged to continue joint military drills with the US – which maintains a massive force of about 28,500 troops in his country to purportedly protect it from the nuclear-armed North – after years of failed diplomacy with Pyongyang under his predecessor.
The war games came just a day after North Korea conducted another ballistic missile test, the latest in its record-breaking wave of weapons testing this year in response to persisting joint military maneuvers near its waters by the nuclear-armed US and the rival South.
Pyongyang justifies its growing weapons testing – including nuclear ones – saying the joint war games between the US and South Korea are rehearsals aimed at invading the sanctions-battered North.
North Korea has been reeling under US-led international sanctions over its programs to further develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles despite the maintenance of similar programs by other nuclear-armed countries, namely the US, Britain, France, the Israeli regime, Russia, China, India and Pakistan.
Earlier this month, Pyongyang revised its nuclear law, enshrining a "first strike" doctrine and vowing never to give up its nuclear arsenal in face of the persisting military threats posed by Washington and Seoul.
Meanwhile, Seoul claimed on Saturday that it detected signs that the North was preparing to fire a Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM), a weapon Pyongyang last tested in May.
Last month, the US and South Korea staged their largest joint military drills since 2018 -- the resumption of large-scale war games that had been scaled back due to Covid-19 and the period of diplomacy with Pyongyang, including unprecedented direct talks between North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and former US President Donald Trump.
The talks, however, produced no meaningful results as the US refused to offer any security guarantees to Pyongyang in response to its repeated demand for the North immediate denuclearization.
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