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South Korea, US launch 'largest' live-fire drills near North borders

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
US soldiers participate in a joint military drill between the US 2nd Infantry Division Stryker Battalion and the ROK 25th Infantry Division Army Tiger Demonstration Brigade at a training field in Paju, South Korea, on January 13, 2023. (Photo by AFP)

South Korean and US forces have begun live-fire exercises in what they said were the biggest such drills. 

Howitzers pounded into a mountainside in Pocheon near the fortified border with North Korea Thursday, while battle tanks maneuvered and fired their guns at targets, sending smoke, dust and shockwaves across the valley, Reuters reported.

South Korea's defense ministry said some 2,500 troops from the South and the United States took part in the exercises, which will be held four more times from now until mid-June.

US and South Korean forces have been carrying out various training exercises in recent months, including air and sea drills involving US B-1B bombers.

North Korea says the drills are a preparation by US and South Korean forces for an invasion.

The joint drills began in 1977 and have so far been held 11 times, with the current ones featuring unmanned and other high-tech assets in live-fire and field training exercises.

According to the South Korean defense ministry, this year's joint drills will involve advanced stealth fighter jets, attack helicopters, multiple rocket launch systems and other weapons from South Korea and the US.

In an earlier statement, the South Korean defense ministry said that the drills were meant to boost the allies’ combined operational performance capabilities, and that Washington and Seoul would seek to establish “the overwhelming deterrence and response capabilities” to cope with what it called North Korean nuclear and missile threats.

Pyongyang typically reacts to such major South Korean-US military exercises with missile and other weapons tests.

Last Friday, North Korea’s state media - KCNA - called the drills “a typical North Korea-targeted war rehearsal,” stressing that Pyongyang cannot but take a more serious note of the fact that the drills would be held in an area a few kilometers from its frontier.

It also said that the US and South Korea would face unspecified “corresponding responses” over what it called their large-scale, provocative drills.

North Korea, which declared itself an "irreversible" nuclear power last year, is seeking to diversify delivery mechanisms for its nuclear weapons. Its military conducted a firing drill late last month, simulating a nuclear attack using tactical ballistic missiles. The North's leader, Kim Jong-un, has called on the military to be ready for war.

North Korea has been under harsh sanctions by the US and the United Nations Security Council for years over its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs. It has launched an unprecedented number of missiles -- more than 100 -- since the beginning of 2022, including its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile ever.

Last month, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol traveled to Washington for a six-day visit to celebrate his country’s 70th year of bilateral relations with the US with a request for extended nuclear protection. 

One of the main issues on the table was the US commitment to provide “extended deterrence,” or the use of US military assets, including nuclear weapons. The two sides issued the "Washington Declaration," charting out measures that would strengthen their alliance. 

Over 28,500 American troops are based in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which concluded in an armistice rather than a peace treaty, meaning that the two neighbors are still technically at war.

Over 28,500 American troops are based in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which concluded in an armistice rather than a peace treaty, meaning that the two neighbors are still technically at war.

Rattled by increased test launches by the North, South Korea has been trying to boost its military alliance with the US and deepen cooperation with Japan.

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