SEOUL • South Korea and the United States kicked off their annual, massive military exercises yesterday, as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered his troops to prepare for a "merciless strike" against the enemy forces.
The drills always raise tensions on the divided Korean peninsula, and this year, they come after the North's recent ballistic missile test and the assassination of Mr Kim's half-brother in Malaysia.
Separately, China and Russia have agreed to intensify their coordinated opposition to the deployment of a US missile-defence system in South Korea, the Chinese foreign ministry said yesterday.
Participation in the joint South Korean-US exercises - known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle - is similar to last year, a US Forces Korea spokesman said.
The drills last year involved 300,000 South Korean and around 17,000 US troops, as well as strategic US naval vessels and air force assets.
South Korean Defence Minister Han Min Koo "stressed the need to bolster the drills" in a phone call with US counterpart James Mattis, who vowed "effective and overwhelming response" against any use of nuclear weapons.
The spokesman said 3,600 US troops have been deployed for the Foal Eagle exercises, the first of the two drills that stretch over two months, but declined to provide a total figure.
South Korean Defence Minister Han Min Koo "stressed the need to bolster the drills" in a phone call with US counterpart James Mattis, who vowed "effective and overwhelming response" against any use of nuclear weapons, Seoul's defence ministry said in a statement.
Pyongyang has long condemned the joint drills as provocative rehearsals for invasion, while Seoul and Washington insist they are purely defensive in nature.
Visiting the headquarters of an army unit, the North's leader Mr Kim praised his troops for their "vigilance against the US and South Korean enemy forces that are making frantic efforts for invasion", the state-run Korean Central News Agency said yesterday.
He also ordered the troops to "set up thorough countermeasures of a merciless strike against the enemy's sudden air assault", it said.
Last year, the impoverished but nuclear-armed North staged two atomic tests and a number of missile launches.
The most recent missile test on Feb 12 - the first since US President Donald Trump took office - showed some signs of progress in its missile capabilities, according to the South Korean military.
Meanwhile in Beijing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it and Moscow have agreed to intensify their coordinated opposition to the deployment of a US missile-defence system in South Korea.
"Both sides said they will continue to strengthen their coordinated opposition to Thaad," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website, citing agreement between deputy foreign ministers of the two countries.
South Korea decided last year to deploy the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system in response to the threat from North Korean missiles.
But China and Russia worry that the system's powerful radar can penetrate their territory and undermine their security, disrupting a balance of power in the region while doing nothing to lower tension on the Korean peninsula.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS