US-South Korea to wrap up joint military drills

SEOUL (AFP) - The United States and South Korea are due on Tuesday to wrap up joint military drills that infuriated North Korea, raising hopes for an easing of cross-border military tensions.

The two-month-long "Foal Eagle" air, ground and naval field training exercise has involved more than 10,000 US troops along with a far bigger number of South Korean personnel.

Pyongyang regularly denounces joint drills as a rehearsal for invasion but Seoul and Washington have insisted the manoeuvres were defensive in nature.

"With the military drills over, at least we can worry less about any accidental clash developing into a full-scale war," said Mr Paik Hak Soon, a North Korea expert at the Sejong Institute, a think-tank in Seoul.

But he said a planned summit in Washington on May 7 between the US President Barack Obama and South Korean leader Park Geun Hye - who took office in February - could be more significant in setting the tone for inter-Korean relations.

"If the North finds the outcome of the summit unsatisfying or unacceptable, that means we would have to live in constant fear of another military provocation near the border," Mr Paik said.

The Korean peninsula has been in a state of heightened military tension since the North carried out its third nuclear test in February.

Incensed by fresh UN sanctions and the joint South Korea-US military exercises, the North has spent weeks issuing blistering threats of missile strikes and war.

The Foal Eagle exercises "are the main factor of pushing the situation on the Korean Peninsula to the brink of a nuclear war," the newspaper of the North's communist party, the Rodong Sinmun, said on Monday.

"The US and South Korean warmongers should bear in mind that they will not be able to escape a miserable doom if they ignite a nuclear war against the DPRK in the end," it added.

Pyongyang has regularly accused the US of preparing to launch a nuclear strike on its territory, and reacted furiously to the use of nuclear-capable B-52s and B-2 stealth bombers in the joint South-US drills.

"This year's exercise was far more aggressive and public in nature than previous drills," Mr Lee Jae Joung, who served as the South's unification minister from 2006 to 2008, said in a radio interview.

"That prompted the North to take a more aggressive stance in turn, sparking the whole cycle of escalating tensions," Mr Lee added.

"I do not see any major crisis taking place after the drill is over and believe that the North will first watch the outcome of the May summit," he said.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported on Sunday that North Korea appeared to be preparing for a major live-fire military exercise of its own involving artillery units and air force jets.

A North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean island in November 2010 killed four people. Seoul also holds Pyongyang responsible for the sinking of one of its naval vessels with the loss of 46 sailors the same year.

Tensions between the two Koreas have been heightened by a row over a jointly run industrial zone inside the North that was once a rare symbol of inter-Korea cooperation.

Seoul announced on Friday the pullout of most of its remaining workers after Pyongyang rejected its call for talks on restarting the stalled operations.

Most returned early on Tuesday, but seven supervisors stayed to resolve administrative issues.