315,000 U.S. and South Korean troops begin massive exercise as North threatens war

More than 15,000 U.S. and 300,000 South Korean troops have kicked off simultaneous joint military drills on the Korean Peninsula aimed at countering North Korean aggression.

The joint military drills — Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, the largest in scale since 2010, will continue through early April. The previously scheduled exercises come amid new UN Security Council sanctions against the "Hermit Kingdom" following North Korea's nuclear and long-range missile tests in January and February. South Korea has announced its intention to apply stiff new sanctions of its own this week.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered his country’s nuclear weapons to be at the ready, and threatened to launch nuclear strikes on both South Korea and the U.S.

“Things could get dicey in the next couple months,” said Bruce Klingner, a Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C. “We’re already seeing North Korea starting to issue threats: If the U.S. doesn’t stop these exercises or doesn’t cancel these exercises, North Korea may take appropriate action. They also highlight that there are a number of strategic assets that will be part of it: nuclear-capable submarines, B-52s, F-22s, etc., special forces Marines — all of which, in North Korean eyes, or the North Korean depiction, is a prelude to an attack on North Korea.”

It is unclear whether North Korea actually believes the exercise is camouflage for an invasion by the U.S. and South Korea or it is trying to frighten South Korea into canceling the exercise, but with the militaries from both sides operating so closely to each other, the chances of something going wrong increases, Klingner said.

“In their statements, they certainly declare that they see the potential for a U.S. attack,” he said. “They will point to U.S. attacks on Libya and Iraq and Serbia as indicative of what the U.S. and its allies might do to them.”

The North Koreans are particularly wary at seeing Marines on the Korean peninsula, Klingner said. In September 1950, Marines and soldiers launched an amphibious landing at Inchon that stopped the North Korean advance south and led to UN forces crossing the 38th parallel into North Korea.

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