South Korea, US to expand joint drill in wake of North's nuclear, missile tests: Defence minister

Four US Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth jets soar above Osan Air Base, south of Seoul.
Four US Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth jets soar above Osan Air Base, south of Seoul. PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (AFP) - A joint military exercise between South Korea and the United States next month has been ramped up in the wake of North Korea's nuclear and missile tests, the South's defence minister said on Thursday (Feb 18).

The annual computer-simulated "Key Resolve" exercise will involve almost triple the number of US troops previously deployed, the Yonhap news agency quoted Mr Han Min Goo as saying.

The US will send 15,000 soldiers, up from 3,700 last year, Mr Han said, and South Korea will also increase its number of participants.

Key Resolve, which ran for 10 days last year, usually kicks off simultaneously with a field exercise known as Foal Eagle, another joint military drill which lasts some 50 days.

Foal Eagle is also expected to be the largest ever this year, attracting key US strategic assets such as a US air force combat brigade, marines, a navy fleet led by an aircraft carrier and nuclear-powered submarines, Yonhap said.

North Korea regularly ratchets up hostile rhetoric at times of joint US-South Korea military exercises that spark a sharp surge in tensions on the divided peninsula.

As the double exercises began last year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un urged his army to prepare for war with the United States and its allies.

The reclusive state also fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea at the start of the exercises.

Last month, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test despite international condemnation and followed it with a long-range rocket launch on Feb 7. The launch was widely condemned as a ballistic missile test banned under UN resolutions.

The United States and South Korea have responded with a series of military muscle-flexing activities.

On Monday, the USS North Carolina attack submarine arrived at the southern port of Busan for joint training with the South Korean navy.

Four US F-22 stealth fighters were deployed to an air base near Seoul on Wednesday.

South Korea and the US are also set to begin talks this week on the possible deployment of an advanced US missile defence system, despite opposition from China.