The US and South Korea kicked off their largest ever joint air exercise early Monday morning, an operation which has been labelled as “all-out provocation” by North Korea. The drill has come just days within Pyongyang fired its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile.
The months-long nuclear standoff between US and North Korea has fuelled concerns of another conflict, more than six decades after 1950-53 Korean War that left much of the peninsula in ruins.
The five-day Vigilant Ace drill — involving 230 aircraft, including F-22 Raptor stealth jet fighters, and tens of thousands of troops — began Monday morning, Seoul’s air force said.
Pyongyang over the weekend criticised the drill, accusing US President Donald’s Trump’s administration of “begging for nuclear war”. Last week, the nuclear-armed North test-fired a new ballistic missile, which it says brings the whole of the United States within range.
The isolated and impoverished North has staged six increasingly powerful atomic tests since 2006 — most recently in September.
“The preemption is becoming more likely as their technology matures. Every missile test, every underground test of a nuclear weapon, means the marriage is more likely,” US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said.
Graham’s remarks echoed those of Trump’s National Security Adviser HR McMaster, who told a security forum on Saturday that the potential for war with the North “is increasing every day.”
The North has boasted that the Hwasong 15 ICBM tested on Wednesday is capable of delivering a “super-large” nuclear warhead anywhere in the US mainland.
North Korea’s widely-condemned nuclear and missile programmes have made significant progress under leader Kim Jong-Un, who has overseen four nuclear tests and dozens of missile launches since taking power in 2011.
But even some Trump advisers say US military options are limited when Pyongyang could launch an artillery barrage on the South Korean capital Seoul — only around 50 kilometres from the heavily-fortified border and home to 10 million people.
(With inputs from Agencies)