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U.S., South Korean troops start drills amid North Korea standoff

| Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017, 11:45 p.m.
South Korean protestors hold placards that read 'stop war exercise' during a rally denouncing the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint South Korea-US military exercise, near the U.S. embassy in Seoul on Aug. 21, 2017.
AFP/Getty Images
South Korean protestors hold placards that read 'stop war exercise' during a rally denouncing the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint South Korea-US military exercise, near the U.S. embassy in Seoul on Aug. 21, 2017.

SEOUL — U.S. and South Korean troops have begun annual drills that come after tensions rose over North Korea's two intercontinental ballistic missile tests last month.

The Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills that began Monday are largely computer-simulated war games and will run through Aug. 31. Pyongyang calls the 11-day drills a "reckless" invasion rehearsal that could trigger the "uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war."

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in said Monday the drills are defensive in nature. He says the drills are held regularly because of repeated provocations by North Korea. The games will involve 17,500 U.S. service members, including 3,000 from outside South Korea, the Pentagon said.

Earlier this month, Trump pledged to answer North Korean aggression with "fire and fury." North Korea, for its part, threatened to launch missiles toward the American territory of Guam.

An editorial in North Korea's Rodong Sinmun newspaper described the annual military drill as "reckless behavior driving the situation into the uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war," CNN reported.

Pyongyang also said that "no one can guarantee that the exercise won't evolve into actual fighting," according to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency.

"If the United States is lost in a fantasy that war on the peninsula is at somebody else's door far away from them across the Pacific, it is far more mistaken than ever," Yonhap said, quoting the North Korean newspaper.

The threats come as President Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have traded warnings in recent weeks, as the North demonstrated progress in its quest for nuclear weapons capable of striking the U.S. mainland despite international condemnation.

North Korea on Aug. 8 announced plans for a ballistic missile test that would strike near the U.S. territory of Guam, and Trump warned that the U.S. would respond to a North Korean attack with "fire and fury like the world has never seen."

North Korea later said its leader would wait to "watch the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees" before deciding whether to conduct the missile test.

North Korea also has thousands of conventional missiles and artillery aimed at South Korea's capital of Seoul, and other civilian targets in the South and Japan.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday the U.S. military would be prepared to intercept any missile heading toward the U.S. territory or that of its allies.

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