BUSAN, South Korea (AP) — Annual war games between South Korea and the U.S. military never fail to bring a loud outcry from North Korea.
U.S. military officials showing off their latest addition to the maneuvers — a new type of ship designed to deal with the exact kind of threat the North could pose — say that despite Pyongyang's protests, they are not about to back away from what has become one of the world's largest joint military exercises.
The "Key Resolve/Foal Eagle" exercises, which began March 2 and will continue through April 24, involve thousands of U.S. troops working alongside a massive mobilization of their South Korean counterparts on land, at sea and in the air. They are among the largest and longest-standing maneuvers conducted each year by the U.S. and its allies.
The kickoff of this year's exercises spurred North Korea to strongly condemn them and to test-fire several missiles to show its displeasure. On Saturday, the North's state media called the exercises an example of Washington's "vicious hostile policy" and obliquely warned it is ready to match any attempt to overthrow its ruling regime with an escalation to nuclear war.
"Nuclear war is not a game. If the U.S. thinks it can survive and win a nuclear war, it will be a delusion of an idiot," said an editorial in the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the ruling party. "The U.S. imperialists should not misjudge the firm will of the army and people of the DPRK to mercilessly smash the anti-DPRK hysterics and eliminate the source of evils." North Korea's official name is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The North often uses such rhetoric to voice displeasure with the U.S. and South Korea.
South Korea's Defense Ministry has said the U.S. is sending a larger contingent of troops for the exercises than it did last year, but has not provided a specific number. About 5,200 American troops participated in last year's Key Resolve, which centers on computer simulations, while about 7,500 joined in the second stage of the maneuvers, called Foal Eagle, a field exercise spanning ground, air, naval and special operations.
The North has taken special umbrage this year at the participation in the exercises of the USS Fort Worth, a new kind of warship designed to fight in areas closer to shore than larger ships can enter and to counter attacks by swarms of smaller vessels, which is believed to be one of the strong points of North Korea's far less sophisticated navy.
The Fort Worth deployed to South Korea and to northeast Asia for the first time to participate in the maneuvers. It is the second Littoral Combat Ship that has been commissioned by the Navy to improve its ability to conduct operations in relatively shallow waters and closer to shorelines. In another first, it is carrying the Fire Scout, the Navy's new helicopter drone.
"I don't see these exercises as provocative," Rear Adm. Lisa Francetti, commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Korea, told reporters aboard the ship at the southern port city of Busan on Saturday. "We do more than 20 naval exercises a year here with our Korean navy partners and they go a long way toward enhancing peace and stability here in this region."
Although overshadowed by North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, the ability to operate near coastlines and around small islands could be crucial if a conflict were to break out on the Korean Peninsula.
The western sea border dividing the Koreas in the Yellow Sea has been a frequent location of violent clashes between the countries. Pyongyang has complained about sea boundaries since the 1950s, claiming the so-called Northern Limit Line, which was drawn by the U.S.-led U.N command after failed attempts to negotiate a border following the Korean War, clearly favors the South by boxing in North Korea close to its shores.
Bloody sea battles took place in 1990, 2002 and 2009. In 2010, North Korea bombarded Yeonpyeong island after the annual drills. Following the 2013 exercises, Pyongyang declared the Korean War armistice agreement invalid.
Along with being seen as a threat, the exercises have long pushed North Korea to step up its own training and readiness, which comes at great cost and diverts its ability to spend its limited resources on other things. Hoping to convince Washington to forego this year's maneuvers, Pyongyang offered to impose a temporary moratorium on its nuclear tests if the U.S. called the drills off. Washington quickly shot that proposal down.
The U.S., which fought alongside South Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, stations about 28,500 troops as deterrence against potential aggression from North Korea. The Korean War ended in a tenuous cease-fire, leaving the peninsula technically in a state of war.