SEOUL • North Korea has slammed an annual United States-South Korea joint military exercise starting today as "adding fuel to the fire", amid heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula, reported South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
The Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of North Korea's ruling party, said yesterday in an editorial that the US moves to place the toughest sanctions on it and launch military provocations have made the situation on the peninsula extremely tense.
The Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise in South Korea starts today and runs until Aug 31.
Analysts say all eyes will be on the annual war games, which could send tensions spiralling back up after an earlier war of words between the US and North Korea looked to have cooled off slightly.
Last month, Pyongyang tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles that appeared to bring much of the US within range, triggering a warning by President Donald Trump that Washington could rain "fire and fury" on the North.
Pyongyang then threatened to fire a salvo of missiles towards the US territory of Guam. Its leader Kim Jong Un last week said the plan was delayed, but added it could go ahead depending on Washington's move.
It will be interesting to see how high a profile these exercises get. Are we trying to publicise them and put some kind of military psychological pressure on (North Korea), or will we keep it low-key and business-like? The latter would suggest that we think a low-key approach might encourage (North Korean) restraint and eventually open a door to dialogue.
MR JAMES SCHOFF, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
N. KOREAN REACTION
The joint exercise is the most explicit expression of hostility against us, and no one can guarantee that the exercise won't evolve into actual fighting. If the United States is lost in a fantasy that war on the peninsula is at somebody else's door far away from them across the Pacific, it is far more mistaken than ever.
THE RODONG SINMUN
The North's reaction to the military exercise may be key to determining what happens next.
US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Joseph Dunford said last week that the US and South Korea would go ahead with joint military drills despite pressure from North Korea and its main ally, China, to halt the exercises.
The Pentagon said last Friday the exercise would involve about 17,500 US service members as well as troops from Australia, Canada, Colombia, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Britain.
A piece published on the Stars and Stripes website said the troops involved this year are "a sharp decrease from the 25,000 who participated last year and the lowest number in at least five years".
US Forces Korea rejected any link between the numbers and current events."We are not changing the exercise based on any recent activities. This is an annual exercise, planned for months in advance," its spokesman Chad Carroll said in an e-mail.
But some analysts suggested it could be another step towards de- escalating tensions. How the games are conducted and advertised will send an important signal to the North, said the US military's newspaper in a piece titled "What to watch for as war games begin between US, South Korea".
Experts said the military could simultaneously deploy US supersonic bombers or aircraft carriers to project strength, or show restraint to calm the situation.
"It will be interesting to see how high a profile these exercises get," said senior fellow James Schoff at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Are we trying to publicise them and put some kind of military psychological pressure on (North Korea), or will we keep it low-key and business-like?
"The latter would suggest that we think a low-key approach might encourage (North Korean) restraint and eventually open a door to dialogue," he added in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.
North Korea has long denounced the drills, calling them rehearsals for a northern invasion. "The joint exercise is the most explicit expression of hostility against us, and no one can guarantee that the exercise won't evolve into actual fighting," the Rodong Sinmun report said.
"If the United States is lost in a fantasy that war on the peninsula is at somebody else's door far away from them across the Pacific, it is far more mistaken than ever," it added.