South joint drills begin amid North Korea tensions

Observers have warned that the war games, the first major exercises since North Korea test-fired two intercontinental ballistic missiles last month (July) that appeared to bring much of the U.S. within range, could be another flashpoint in the crisis.

The Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills are largely computer-simulated war games held every summer and have drawn furious responses from North Korea, which views them as an invasion rehearsal.

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in said Monday the drills are defensive in nature.

North Korea regularly condemns the exercise as an act of aggression, but this year comes after Donald Trump threatened "fire and fury like the world has never seen", following Pyongyang's successful missile tests.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reviews the plan for landing missiles near the US territory of Guam in this undated still photo taken from video provided by KRT.

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Both US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis said last week that the US was keeping military options on the table in dealing with North Korea.

Mattis also made clear the US' willingness to use force if North Korea steps out of line.

"Most US troops in South Korea are stationed for only one year".

"As long as the threat from North Korea exists, we need to maintain a high state of readiness to respond to that threat", Dunford told reporters in Beijing last week.

But Daniel Pinkston, a military expert who teaches at Troy University in Seoul, says the US-South Korea drills will not push the region to a war.

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According to the South Korean newspaper Joongang Ilbo, the following scenario, among others, is being tested during the exercise: In a potential military operation, how to carry out a preventive strike against the North Korean leadership. So far the USA and South Korea have rejected this idea.

But this year's exercises come just as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un actually de-escalated tensions by putting put on hold a plan to fire intermediate range ballistic missiles toward waters near the US territory of Guam.

"The dual freeze approach is China's attempt at buck passing and moral equivalency between USA actions and North Korean actions", Hass said. A little later, the communist country conducted its fifth nuclear test.

The UN Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea on Aug 5 that could slash its $3 billion annual export revenue by a third. Neither the one next week or a large one usually held in March would impact US readiness, and they could be replaced with more targeted drills that focus on command and control systems, he said.

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