South Korea and United States launch Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills

Tensions between the United States and North Korea have escalated in recent days. Reuters

Tensions between the United States and North Korea have escalated in recent days. Reuters

South Korean and U.S. forces began annual military exercises on Monday amid tensions over North Korea's missile and nuclear programs, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in saying the drills were purely defensive.

Both the United States and South Korea has insisted that the 10-day military drills are defensive in nature, but North Korea has condemned the joint exercises as rehearsals for invasion.

A group of peace activists, affiliated with 13 advocacy groups, held a press conference outside the presidential Blue House, saying the DPRK's nuclear and missile tests would be stopped through dialogue only when the Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) joint military exercise is stopped.

Pyongyang threatened to fire a salvo of missiles towards the United States territory of Guam - a plan that leader Kim Jong-Un last week delayed, but warned could go ahead depending on Washington's next move. South Korean President Moon Jae-in stated that the joint exercise is exclusively defensive and isn't aimed to increase tensions with its neighbor.

The exercise is a computerized command-and-control simulation, said a spokeswoman for US Forces in Korea.

President Trump said earlier this month that North Korea faced "fire and fury like the world has never seen" if Pyongyang continues its threats against America.

The 11-day exercise will be the first major exercise since North Korea test-fired two intercontinental ballistic missiles last month that appeared to bring much of the USA within range.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, speaking on Sunday, noted that the reduced numbers are not an attempt to placate North Korean requests for modifications to the drillls.

Mattis also said the exercise had been planned months in advance to address areas of weakness and what the allies want to accomplish going forward.

The Pentagon said the joint exercise would involve about 17,500 United States service members, as well as troops from Australia, Canada, Colombia, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Britain. He has previously said military force is an option to prevent Kim from gaining an intercontinental ballistic missile that could deliver a nuclear weapon to the US.

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told "Fox News Sunday" the president's statement jeopardized America's relationship with China, which is in the best position to calm North Korea's aggression.

But some analysts suggested it could be another step towards de-escalating tensions that skyrocketed as North Korea and Trump lobbed threats at each other in a war of words.

It is believed that by using the domestic category, North Korea could "conceal critical vessel recognition data and circumvent global maritime law", the report says.

The "lax enforcement" of existing sanctions and Pyongyang's "evolving evasion techniques" were undermining the United Nations goal of getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Kyodo quoted the report as saying.

On the eve of the UFG drills, North Korea said the U.S. was "pouring gasoline on fire".

About 17,500 USA troops will participate in this year's drills, which represents a reduction from last year.

"I understand that the USA has traditionally taken the position that all options are on the table to [achieve] the abandonment of the North Korean nuclear program", Moon said, in comments quoted by Blue House spokesperson Park Soo-hyun.

"Sometimes it's better to leave them in their fundamental training mode rather than being out on the ground waiting for orders as staffs are learning how to work together", he said.

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