South Korea and the United States kicked off large-scale military exercises on Monday, triggering condemnation and threats of a preemptive nuclear strike from North Korea.
The two-week annual Ulchi Freedom drill, which plays out a scenario of full-scale invasion by the nuclear-armed North, is largely computer-simulated but still involves around 50,000 Korean and 25,000 US soldiers.
The exercise always triggers a rise in tensions on the divided Korean peninsula, and this year it coincides with particularly volatile cross-border relations following a series of high-profile defections.
Seoul and Washington insist the joint military drills are purely defensive in nature, but Pyongyang views them as willfully provocative.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry on Monday condemned Ulchi Freedom as an “unpardonable criminal act” that could bring the peninsula to “the brink of war”.
The Korean People’s Army (KPA), meanwhile, threatened a military response to what it described as a rehearsal for a surprise nuclear attack and invasion of the North.
North Korea’s frontline units were “fully ready to mount a preemptive retaliatory strike at all enemy attack groups involved”, said a spokesman for the KPA General Staff.
The slightest violation of North Korea’s territorial sovereignty would result in the source of the provocation being turned “into a heap of ashes through Korean-style preemptive nuclear strike”, the spokesman said.
Pyongyang has made similar threats in the past, and actual retaliation for South Korea-US military drills has largely been restricted to firing ballistic missiles into the sea.
The North’s main ally China voiced its opposition to Ulchi Freedom, with a commentary published by the local media, saying it would only make Pyongyang “more aggressive” at an already sensitive time.
As the drill began, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye said a recent spate of headline-grabbing defections from North Korea signalled political turmoil in Pyongyang that could cause the leadership there to lash out against the South.
“It is increasingly possible that North Korea may undertake various terror attacks and provocations… to block internal unrest, prevent further defections and create confusion in our society,” Park told a meeting of her National Security Council.
On Sunday the Unification Ministry in Seoul urged all citizens to be on guard against possible North Korean assassination attempts on defectors and anti-Pyongyang activists in the South.
Park said the South’s military was on high alert and would “vigorously strike back” in the event of any hostile action.