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US, South Korea start war games despite North Korea threat

Seoul and Washington each year conduct a number of joint military drills that they claim to be of defensive nature.

The North's "first-strike" units are ready to mount retaliatory attacks on South Korean and USA forces involved in the drills, according to the statement, carried by Pyongyang's state media.

The objective of the exercise is to "enhance Alliance readiness, protect the region and maintain stability on the Korean peninsula", the statement said.

North Korea will "turn the stronghold of provocation into a heap of ashes through Korean-style pre-emptive nuclear strike" if the US and South Korea "show the slightest sign of aggression" during the drill, a spokesman for North Korea's military was quoted as saying by the country's state media.

In response to the start of annual military drills involving the US and South Korea, North Korea threatened to turn Seoul and Washington into "a heap of ashes with a pre-emptive nuclear strike" - if they showed any signs of aggression toward the North's territory.

North Korea's outrage over a standard military exercise belies Kim Jong Un's anxiety over "cracks" in the foundation of the authoritarian regime following a recent string of major defections.

The annual drill will include 25,000 USA troops, the bulk of which are already stationed in Korea, according to a statement by US Forces Korea.

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South Korea is aware of the DPRK's fragile state.

The January nuclear test heightened North Korea's isolation as the worldwide community, backed by the North's main diplomatic protector China, imposed substantially upgraded economic sanctions.

As the exercise began, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye said the defections signaled domestic turmoil in Pyongyang that could cause North Korea to lash out.

The drill always triggers a spike in tensions on the divided Korean peninsula, and this year it coincides with particularly volatile cross-border relations following a series of high-profile defections.

About 28,500 USA troops are in South Korea to help deter potential aggression from North Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended with armistice, not a peace treaty. Of the USA troops, about 2,500 are coming from off the peninsula.

China voiced concern about the drills, with a government spokesman saying it would make North Korea "more aggressive" at an already sensitive time. "It is highly likely that North Korea will make various attempts to prevent further defections and unrest among its people".

Tensions initially rose in the wake of North Korea's fourth nuclear test in January, prompting tightened UN Security Council sanctions. In response to this defection, North Korea called Thae "human scum" who ran to escape punishments for criminal activities. In 1997, the North Korean ambassador to Egypt fled but resettled in the United States.

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