South Korea, US launch largest aerial drill as Pyongyang warns of a 'flare-up' in tensions leading to war

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A US stealth fighter jet F-22 Raptor takes off from a South Korean air base in Gwangju, 329km south-west of Seoul as South Korea and the US begin a five-day joint air force drill on Dec 4, 2017. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL - Tensions on the Korean peninsula on Monday (Dec 4) ratcheted up a notch, fuelling concerns of a conflict, as the US and South Korean air forces launched their largest ever drill.

The joint exercise is set to include simulated strikes on mock North Korean nuclear and missile targets.

The five-day drill, called Vigilant Ace, had been criticised by Pyongyang as an "all-out provocation", and comes less than a week after North Korea fired its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States.

Washington and Seoul had ignored calls from Beijing and Moscow to call off the major drills to ease tensions on the peninsula.

The annual training was scheduled long before the North successfully launched Hwasong-15 and declared last Wednesday (Nov 29) the completion of its "nuclear force", and the US 7th Force said in a statement on Monday that the drills were "not in response to any incident or provocation".

Still, North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country called US President Donald Trump "insane" on Sunday and said the drills would "push the already acute situation on the Korean peninsula to the brink of nuclear war", Reuters reported.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Monday called on all parties concerned to abide by relevant United Nations resolutions on the Korean issue.

"After two months of relative quiet, tensions on the Korean peninsula have increased again," he said, adding that it was regrettable that the parties involved failed to seize on China's appeals, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a news conference on Monday: "The situation on the Korean peninsula is highly sensitive, and we hope that relevant parties can avoid provocation and do more to ease tension."

China had said last month that a "dual suspension" proposal to handle North Korea was the best option.

Acknowledging that UN-led sanctions have apparently failed to bite Pyongyang deeply enough to force it to halt its nuclear weapons programmes, China and Russia had proposed that the US and South Korea stop major military exercises in exchange for North Korea stopping its programmes.

Known as the largest-ever combined air force drill between the US and South Korea, Vigilant Ace involves more than 230 warplanes - including six F-22 Raptors, six F-35A and 12 F-35B stealth fighter jets - and some 12,000 personnel.

Fifth-generation stealth jets are involved for the first time this year, according to The Washington Post.

"It is quite rare for the US to deploy stealth fighters on such a scale," a South Korean military official, who declined to disclose his identity, was cited by The Korea Herald yesterday as saying.

The stealth fighters are expected to take part in drills targeting mock North Korean mobile missile launchers - known as Transporter Erector Launchers - as well as underground nuclear and missile facilities, The Korea Herald reported.

Meanwhile, Japan's Parliament on Monday said North Korea's missile tests are an "imminent threat" to Japan, which saw the missile in the North's latest launch drop into its economic waters.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the Upper House that talking to the reclusive state was "meaningless".

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