By Anna Fifield,
TOKYO — The United States and South Korea started huge military exercises Monday, including rehearsals for surgical strikes on North Korea’s main nuclear and missile facilities.
The exercises always elicit an angry response from Pyongyang, but this year’s statement was particularly ferocious, accusing the United States and South Korea of planning a “beheading operation” aimed at removing Kim Jong Un’s regime.
The drills come amid a particularly tense time, with the international community — and the United States and South Korea especially — trying to punish Pyongyang for its recent nuclear test and missile launch. The U.N. sanctions passed last week are the toughest yet.
About 17,000 American forces and 300,000 South Korean personnel will take part in Key Resolve, 11 days of computer-simulated training, and in the Foal Eagle field exercises, which will last eight weeks and involve ground, air, naval and Special Operations services.
The Key Resolve part of the exercise will include a wartime plan adopted by South Korea and the United States last year, called OPLAN 5015, under which they will practice making precision attacks on North Korea’s leadership and weapons of mass destruction.
Key Resolve “highlights the longstanding and enduring partnership and friendship between the two nations and their combined commitment to the defense of [South Korea] and regional stability,” United States Forces Korea said in a statement.
About 28,000 American troops are still on the Korean peninsula, the result of the security alliance formed during the Korean War.
USFK also said it had informed the North’s Korean People’s Army — through the United Nations Command, which controls the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas — about the exercise dates and “the non-provocative nature of this training.”
But North Korea did not see it this way.
Pyongyang said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency on Monday that its army and people “will take military counteraction for preemptive attack so that they may deal merciless deadly blows at the enemies.”
“We have a military operation plan of our style to liberate south Korea and strike the U.S. mainland ratified by our dignified supreme headquarters,” the KCNA report warned.
It already had deployed “offensive means” to strike South Korea and also “U.S. imperialist aggressor forces bases in the Asia-Pacific region and the U.S. mainland.”
North Korea has a habit of making threats on which it cannot follow through. Last week, Kim ordered his military to be ready to use its nuclear weapons at any time, saying they were needed, given the “ferocious hostility” of new “gangster-like” sanctions leveled against Pyongyang.
Analysts doubt whether North Korea has the capability to attach its nuclear weapons to a missile, and firing one would be suicidal for North Korea, whose conventional military still uses Soviet-era equipment.
But Kim has shown himself willing to use the means available to him to express his anger. Last year, during a period of tensions with South Korea, he ordered his military onto a war footing, sending army units to the DMZ and submarines out of port.
South Korea and the United States would increase monitoring of North Korea during the exercises.
“We will carry out these exercises while keeping tabs on signs of North Korean provocations,” a South Korean official told reporters, according to Yonhap News Agency. “If the North provokes us during this exercise, the U.S. and our troops will retaliate with an attack ten-fold stronger.”
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