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Sunday, August 20, 2006

SKorea, US launch joint military exercises

SEOUL (AFP)- South Korea and the United States have launched joint military exercises amid tensions over North Korea's ballistic missile tests and reports it is preparing for a nuclear test, officials said.

Some 8,000 US troops and an undisclosed number of South Korean military soldiers were joining the annual military drill, according to military authorities from both sides.

"The Ulchi Focus Lens exercises began today as scheduled to run until September 1," a South Korean defense ministry spokesman said.

The drills, which involves a massive computer-simulated war game, have been denounced by North Korea as a prelude to war against the communist country.

But Seoul and Washington deny the North Korean claims, insisting the "defense-oriented" joint military exercises have been held annually since 1975.

The US military authorities say 3,000 US troops are usually brought into South Korea from the Pacific and elsewhere for the exercises, to join another 5,000 US troops stationed here.

South Korea, which is seeking rapprochement with North Korea, refuses to disclose the number of its troops taking part in the military maneuvers.

Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) last week again condemned the joint exercises as "grave military provocation".

"They are nothing but a very dangerous military adventure driving the situation of the Korean peninsula to the brink of war," KCNA said Friday.

North Korea, in defiance of international warnings, test-launched seven ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan (East Sea) on July 5. The UN Security Council unanimously condemned the move and imposed sanctions on Pyongyang.

In protest at the UN measures, North Korea warned it could take "stronger physical actions" in response.

US television network ABC said Thursday that Pyongyang may be preparing an underground nuclear test. The governments in both Seoul and Washington remain cautious about the authenticity of the report.

ABC said a US intelligence agency had recently observed "suspicious" activities, including the unloading of large reels of cable outside a suspected underground test site called Pungyee-yok in northeast North Korea.

North Korea announced in February 2005 that it had manufactured nuclear weapons but nuclear weapons tests have never been reported.

North Korea has boycotted six-way nuclear disarmament talks -- also including China, the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia -- since November, citing US economic sanctions.
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