South Korean, US Marines tussle in snow in what North Korea brands 'madcap' drill

US Marines and South Korean Marine Corps soldiers participate in a winter exercise in Pyeongchang, South Korea on Jan 24, 2017.
US Marines and South Korean Marine Corps soldiers participate in a winter exercise in Pyeongchang, South Korea on Jan 24, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA (REUTERS) - South Korean and US Marines are conducting military exercises on ski slopes in sub-freezing temperatures, including shirtless hand-to-hand combat in the snow, prompting warnings of retaliation from North Korea over the "madcap mid-winter" drills.

More than 300 Marines are taking part, simulating combat on the ski slopes of Pyeongchang, host of the 2018 Winter Olympics, amid speculation North Korea could be planning another missile test in defiance of United Nations resolutions.

"US Marine Corps and ROK (Republic of Korea) Marine Corps partnered together at every level to build a camaraderie and friendship of the two countries' militaries but also to increase our proficiency in the event where we have to fight a war together," US Captain Marcus Carlstrom told reporters.

The training began on Jan 15 and ends on Feb 3 in Pyeongchang, about 180km east of Seoul.

About 28,500 US troops are stationed in South Korea in joint defence against North Korea, which is under UN sanctions over a series of nuclear and missile tests and which regularly threatens to destroy the South and the United States.

Poverty-stricken, reclusive North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

James Mattis, in his confirmation hearing as US defence secretary, described "the Pacific theatre" as a priority and analysts expect new US military spending under President Donald Trump to strengthen the US presence in Asia.

Topping US concerns in the region are North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programmes and China's military moves in the South China Sea.

North Korean media was dismissive of the exercises, but warned of retaliation.

"The colonial puppet forces, no more than a rabble, are keen on escalating the tension and the moves to ignite a war at a time when even their American master is at a loss how to cope with the DPRK's powerful nuclear deterrent," North Korea's Minju Joson newspaper, quoted by the KCNA news agency, said.

"... If the south Korean warmongers ignite a war against the DPRK, totally counting on the US, the revolutionary forces of the DPRK will wipe out the aggressors to the last man by fully displaying their tremendous might ..." DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name.

Acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo Ahn said on Monday the deployment of a US anti-missile defence system should not be delayed in the face of the growing North Korean nuclear missile threat.

South Korean Defence Minister Han Min Koo said on Friday North Korea's nuclear weapons and missiles were "a direct and substantive threat" and ordered thorough military readiness, Yonhap News Agency said.