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Joint exercise meant as show of force to North, South Korea says

SEOUL — The U.S. military is denying that a four-day joint air defense exercise this week has any special significance, but South Korean defense officials are loudly touting it as a “massive” show of force to North Korea following its latest nuclear test.

“We want to show our will to strongly punish our enemy’s provocation,” a spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Both countries’ militaries said the Peninsula Operation Readiness Exercise, called Beverly Bulldog by the U.S., had been planned since last year and it was just a coincidence that it started Tuesday, the same day as North Korea’s third and most powerful nuclear test.

“It has nothing to do with current events,” 7th Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Richelle Dowdell said.

However, South Korea used unusually strong language to describe the exercise and the country’s willingness to retaliate in case of future provocations.

An MND statement said the air drill, which wraps up Friday, is meant to “annihilate the enemy’s will to go to war. It quoted a top South Korean air force official as saying troops should “fully steel ourselves” in the wake of the North’s nuclear test and a successful rocket launch in December.

South Korea announced this week it is increasing its missile detection and interception capabilities following the nuclear test. South Korean defense officials have said additional nuclear testing and rocket launches by the North are possible.

Fighters from both countries have made hundreds of sorties since Tuesday in a “high-intensity” drill intended to mimic conditions of a North Korean provocation, an MND statement said.

The MND spokesman would not say how many South Korean troops were involved in the joint exercise, or in a separate four-day South Korean naval and army exercise that runs through Saturday. It is taking place near the disputed maritime border between the two Koreas and involves more than 20 vessels, including submarines and frigates.

Dowdell did not immediately know the number of U.S. airmen involved in the air exercise, and declined to comment on whether military drills would be conducted in response to the latest nuclear test, citing operational security.

The MND spokesman said South Korea is discussing the possibility of additional joint drills but no plans have been made. It was unclear if U.S. military officials were involved in those discussions.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s National Assembly adopted a resolution Thursday condemning the launch, a day after President-elect Park Geun-hye warned that North Korea faces “self-destruction” if it persists in developing nuclear weapons, given how much the poverty-wracked country is pumping into the effort.

“No matter how many nuclear tests North Korea conducts to bolster its nuclear capabilities, it will eventually bring itself self-destruction by wasting its resources,” Park, who takes office Feb. 25, was quoted as saying in a statement released by her transition team. “Nuclear weapons did not prevent the old Soviet Union from collapsing.”

Park has criticized current President Lee Myung-bak’s hardline stance against the North. During her campaign, she said she favored greater engagement with Pyongyang but would not tolerate additional provocations.

On Wednesday, she told national security and foreign affairs advisers that she intends to “make sure that North Korea pays for its provocations while assuring opportunities and assistance if it chooses to become a responsible member of the international community.”

rowlanda@pstripes.osd.mil
chang.yookyong@pstripes.osd.mil

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