If North Korea uses the drills this week as a reason to launch missiles around Guam or elsewhere, it could set off a new cycle of escalation.
“We have no intention of raising military tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” President Moon Jae-in of South Korea said on Monday during a meeting with his staff. “North Korea should not use this as a pretext for provocation.”
On Sunday, the North’s main state-run newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, likened the drills to an act of “throwing fuel onto fire” that would “worsen the situation.”
“No one can guarantee that this will not escalate into a real war,” it said, calling the annual drills a “rehearsal for nuclear war” and the “most naked expression of hostility” toward the North.
The war games, which last 11 days, involve some 17,500 American service members, including about 3,000 from outside the peninsula, and 50,000 South Korean troops. The exercises include computer simulations carried out in a large bunker south of Seoul intended to check the allies’ readiness to repel aggressions by the North.
The drills this year are the second Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises since the United States and South Korea reportedly revised their war plans in 2015 to reflect the North’s advances in its nuclear capabilities.
Adm. Harry B. Harris, commander of the United States Pacific Command, and Gen. John E. Hyten, chief of the United States Strategic Command, arrived in South Korea over the weekend to observe the exercises. Their unusual presence was meant to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to defend its ally, officials in South Korea said.
It remained unclear whether the drills would involve nuclear-capable long-range bombers and other strategic weapons from the United States. They were not deployed in the exercises last year. The number of American troops participating decreased by 7,500 this year, but the overall scale of the drills remained the same, South Korean defense officials said.
North Korea has long accused the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian drills and larger springtime joint exercises of raising tensions and has offered to freeze its nuclear and missile tests if they are suspended. China backs that proposal. But Seoul and Washington have rejected the offer, calling the drills legitimate defense exercises that they have conducted for decades.
On Guam, tourists lined up at popular restaurants Monday morning and went for lazy swims in Tumon Bay.
Officials there said the threat level remained normal despite the war games. “Our office has not received official statement warranting any concern for imminent threat to Guam or the Marianas,” said George Charfauros, the Homeland Security adviser, referring also to a neighboring island chain.
“The rhetoric out of North Korea regarding the exercise is similar to what they have done in the past and continue to do with each joint exercise between South Korea, the United States and its allies,” according to a statement from the Offices of Guam Homeland Security and Civil Defense on Monday.
B-1 bombers based at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam fly regular missions to the Korean Peninsula, which provokes outrage from the North. The “air pirates of Guam again appeared in the sky above South Korea to stage a madcap drill simulating an actual war,” the command of the Strategic Force of North Korea’s military, which controls its missile program, said this month in warning that it was drawing up plans to launch four intermediate-range ballistic missiles toward the territory.
Also on Monday, North Korea opened the floodgates of a dam near its border with South Korea without warning, causing the Imjin River to rise dangerously high in the South, officials said. The South Korean authorities issued an alert for possible flooding, but no casualties were reported.
In 2009, six South Koreans who had been fishing or camping on the river were killed when water released from the North Korean dam swept south. North Korea expressed regret at the time. But since relations between the Koreas deteriorated in 2013, the North has opened the floodgates without warning on a number of occasions, never resulting in casualties.
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