South Korea and the United States have started annual joint military exercises, ignoring strong warnings from Pyongyang, which has slammed the wargames as the “most explicit expression of hostility” against the North.
Tens of thousands of troops from the US and South Korea are participating in the drills, codenamed Ulchi Freedom Guardian, which kicked off on South Korean soil on Monday.
The maneuvers, which are largely computer-simulated, will run for two weeks.
Pyongyang views such exercises as a threatening act of hostility and a rehearsal for a military invasion against North Korea.
Commenting on the drills, South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday described the exercises as defensive, saying they do not aim to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
The maneuvers began a day after North Korea warned Washington and Seoul that going ahead with the drills would be like “pouring gasoline on fire.”
The exercises come amid fresh escalations on the Korean Peninsula after Pyongyang tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of targeting US mainland last month.
US President Donald Trump lashed out at Pyongyang by threatening it with “fire, fury…the likes of which this world has never seen.”
Pyongyang in response said that it would launch missiles into the waters near the US Pacific island of Guam, where American military troops are stationed and some 160,000 US citizens live.
Last week, however, North Korea, which is under mounting international pressure over its missile and military nuclear programs, “postponed” the move.
About 17,500 American troops are reportedly participating in the drills, a cutback from last year.
South Korean media also reported that the US was considering scrapping a plan to deploy two aircraft carriers to the peninsula.
However, US Defense Secretary James Mattis denied suggestions that his country had slashed the number of its troops to try to ease tensions with Pyongyang, saying the smaller troop numbers were “by design to achieve the exercise objectives.”
“This right now is an exercise to make certain that we’re ready to defend South Korea and our allies over there,” Mattis told reporters en route to Jordan on Sunday.