SEOUL // US and South Korean troops began annual military drills today and North Korea said it had put its armed forces on full combat readiness in response to the exercises, heightening tensions on the Korean peninsula. North Korea, which is believed to be preparing to test-fire its longest-range ballistic missile, also said it would regard the shooting down of any of its rockets as an act of war. The North Korean army said in a statement the drills were a "provocation" that would only occur "on the eve of a war", and cut off a telephone hotline with the South's military.
Pyongyang regularly accuses the United States and South Korea of aggressive intentions before the exercises, which have been held for years without major incident. But North Korean media has been more strident about these drills, which come as Pyongyang is making preparations to test-fire its Taepodong-2 missile and at a time of speculation about the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. North Korea has repeatedly said it is preparing to launch a satellite as part of a peaceful space programme.
"Shooting our satellite for peaceful purposes will precisely mean a war," a spokesman for the North's Korean People's Army said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency. Last week the unpredictable state said it could not guarantee the safety of South Korean civilian aircraft flying near its airspace. That forced several airliners to alter their routes. The military drills are scheduled to run until March 20, and are longer and on a greater scale than in previous years.
The aim is to test the defensive readiness of US and South Korean forces ahead of the transfer of wartime command from the US to the South Korean military in the next several years. Troops are being mobilised throughout South Korea, including Marines who will conduct live-fire drills north of Seoul, which is less than two hours drive from North Korea. A US aircraft carrier will take part in the exercises, the US military said.
South Korea, Japan and the United States have said they see no difference between a satellite and a missile launch because they use the same technology and the same rocket. The North is barred from launching a ballistic missile under UN sanctions. * Reuters