PYEONGCHANG (South Korea) • South Korean and US Marines are conducting military exercises on ski slopes in sub-freezing temperatures, including shirtless hand- to-hand combat in the snow, prompting warnings of retaliation from North Korea over "madcap mid-winter" drills.
More than 300 Marines are taking part, simulating combat on the ski slopes of Pyeongchang, amid speculation North Korea could be planning another missile test in defiance of United Nations resolutions.
"US Marine Corps and Republic of Korea Marine Corps partnered at every level to build camaraderie between the two and to increase our proficiency in the event we have to fight a war together," US Captain Marcus Carlstrom said. The training began on Jan 15 and will end next Friday in Pyeongchang, about 180km east of Seoul.
About 28,500 US troops are stationed in South Korea in joint defence against North Korea, which is under UN sanctions over a series of nuclear and missile tests.
North and South Korea are technically still at war because their 1950-1953 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
Mr James Mattis, in his confirmation hearing as US defence secretary, described "the Pacific theatre" as a priority and analysts expect new US military spending under President Donald Trump to strengthen the US presence in Asia.
Topping US concerns in the region are North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programmes and China's military moves in the South China Sea.
North Korean media was dismissive of the exercises, but warned of retaliation.
"The colonial puppet forces are keen on escalating the tension and moves to ignite a war at a time when their American master is at a loss on how to cope with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's powerful nuclear deterrent," said North Korea's Minju Joson newspaper, as quoted by the KCNA news agency.
Acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo Ahn said on Monday that the deployment of a US anti-missile defence system should not be delayed in the face of the growing North Korean nuclear missile threat.
South Korean Defence Minister Han Min Koo said yesterday that North Korea's nuclear weapons and missiles were "a direct and substantive threat" and ordered thorough military readiness, Yonhap News Agency reported.