With tensions high, UFG begins

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With tensions high, UFG begins

South Korea’s military launched its annual joint military exercises with U.S. Forces Korea on Monday amid heightened tensions on the peninsula, following the detonation of North Korean land mines in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) earlier this month.

During the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG), which will run through Aug. 28, some 50,000 South Korean soldiers and 30,000 U.S. soldiers will be mobilized to improve South Korea’s defensive posture and boost stability in the region.

This year’s drills come two weeks after land mine blasts in the southern part of the DMZ maimed two patrol soldiers on Aug. 4, increasing military tensions and prompting President Park Geun-hye to vow a severe response should the North commit another provocation.

North Korea, in a manner similar with its response to the sinking of the Cheonan warship in 2010, denied charges that it planted the mines and violated the armistice agreement by crossing the demarcation line bisecting the two Koreas.

South Korea responded to the blasts by resuming propaganda broadcasts via speakers installed at border units, which had been halted 11 years ago, and the North warned of “indiscriminate” strikes against those units if the broadcasts are not halted.

On the first day of UFG, President Park Geun-hye called for strong military readiness against potential threats from the North at a cabinet meeting at the Blue House, acknowledging that such threats had been on the rise.

“To secure peace on the Korean Peninsula, we must have a military posture with a strong mind-set for national security. … I ask the military to look on the recent land mine detonations as a case to sharpen its security readiness so that Korean people could be at ease to lead normal lives [in the face of the North’s belligerent behavior],” said Park.

North Korea kept its long tradition of balking at the joint Seoul-Washington exercises, claiming they are rehearsals for a full-scale war on the peninsula and demanding the South Korean government halt the drills as a precondition for resuming inter-Korean talks. It threatened retaliatory action in a statement issued by the National Defense Commission chaired by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Saturday.

The North’s protest came as the United Nations Military Armistice Commission informed the North Korean army of the defensive nature of the UFG through the truce village of Panmumjom on Saturday.

The 12-day drill is monitored by the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission to ensure it complies with the armistice terms.

While Pyongyang warned of retaliation, the prospect of another military provocation by the North is unlikely given one small provocative action could spill into a much larger conflict during a large-scale military drill that includes U.S. forces.

North Korea also on Monday responded to President Park’s speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Liberation Day with its usual vitriol, accusing Park of being two-faced by proposing dialogue while conducting the joint military exercises at the same time.

In the profanity-laced statement, the North said Park did not deserve to speak of inter-Korean cooperation while still refusing to lift the economic sanctions imposed in retaliation for the sinking of the Cheonan warship and keeping all other business projects with the North frozen, a reference to the Mount Kumgang tour program suspended since 2008.

In her speech, Park called on the North to choose the path of inter-Korean prosperity and do away with its belligerent attitude, while vowing to deal sternly with military action should the North attempt another provocation like the land mine incident.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinku@joongang.co.kr]

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