SEOUL • The United States and South Korea yesterday kicked off annual military exercises, prompting warnings of retaliation from the North.
About 25,000 US troops are joining in the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, which runs until Sept 2. The US-led United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission said it had notified the North Korean army that the exercises were "non-provocative" in nature.
The North calls the exercises preparations for invasion, and early yesterday threatened a pre-emptive nuclear strike.
North Korea frequently makes such threats but tensions on the peninsula have been inflamed by the defection of a high-ranking Pyongyang diplomat.
Last week, South Korea announced that Mr Thae Yong Ho, the North's deputy ambassador in London, had defected and arrived in the South with his family, in an embarrassing blow to the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
High-level defections pointed to cracks in the Kim regime, South Korean President Park Geun Hye said yesterday.
"Recently even North Korea's elite group is collapsing, followed by key figures defecting to foreign countries, showing a sign of serious cracks, with chances of shaking the regime further," she told a National Security Council meeting.
Mr Thae's defection followed the flight to Seoul this year of 12 waitresses from a North Korean restaurant in China.
On Monday, North Korea's Red Cross sent a letter to its South Korean counterpart asking for the women to be sent back, saying they had been kidnapped by the South, according to Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency.
South Korea denies they were kidnapped.
North Korea has become further isolated after a January nuclear test, its fourth, and the launch of a long-range rocket in February brought the toughest-ever UN Security Council sanctions against the regime.