SEOUL • Seoul and Washington began annual war games yesterday, with South Korean President Moon Jae In warning the nuclear-armed North not to use them as an excuse to perpetuate the vicious circle of tensions.
Tens of thousands of South Korean and United States troops are taking part in the "Ulchi Freedom Guardian" (UFG) joint military drills, a largely computer-simulated exercise that runs for two weeks in the South.
Other South Korean allies are also joining this year, with troops from Australia, Britain, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, the Netherlands, and New Zealand taking part.
The annual drills are viewed by Pyongyang as a highly provocative rehearsal for invasion, and it always meets them with threats of strong military counteraction.
Only weeks ago, it said it was considering firing missiles towards the US Pacific territory of Guam.
Mr Moon described the exercises as "purely defensive in nature" and warned Pyongyang it "must not use it as an excuse to launch provocations that will worsen the situation".
"North Korea must understand its repeated provocations are what is forcing South Korea and the US to conduct the joint defensive drills, which in turn, keeps the vicious cycle going," Mr Moon told a Cabinet meeting.
Number of US troops taking part in the drills this year, a cutback from last year's 25,000.
Pyongyang tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) last month that appeared to bring much of the US within range.
That sparked a grim warning by US President Donald Trump that Washington could rain "fire and fury" on the North.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un last week delayed the Guam strike plan, but warned it could go ahead, depending on Washington's next move.
While the allies are pushing ahead with the exercises that date back to 1976, around 17,500 US troops will participate in the drills - a cutback from last year's 25,000.
South Korean media reports have said the US was considering scrapping a plan to bring in two aircraft carriers to the peninsula.
But US Defence Secretary James Mattis said on Sunday the smaller troop numbers were "by design to achieve the exercise objectives", denying suggestions Washington had cut them back to try to ease tensions with Pyongyang.
"This, right now, is an exercise to make certain that we're ready to defend South Korea and our allies over there," General Mattis told reporters.
US Pacific Command chief Admiral Harry Harris arrived in the South on Sunday to inspect the exercises and discuss growing North Korean nuclear and missile threats.
On the eve of the drills, North Korea said the US was "pouring gasoline on fire". In a commentary carried by the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper, the North warned of an "uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war" on the peninsula, which would entangle the US mainland.
Meanwhile, South Korea held an anti-terror drill in the city of Goyang north of Seoul, on the sidelines of the joint military drills with the US. Police, Swat teams and emergency services personnel took part in the drill.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS