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Annual US-South Korean Military Exercises Commence; North Korea Fumes

U.S. and South Korean forces have begun their annual joint military exercises Saturday, which North Korea denounced as what it called a rehearsal for war. The exercises began as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in the South Korean capital, seeking a way to restart talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

About 17,000 U.S.-based military personnel joined another 6,000 based in South Korea to take part in annual military exercises, which simulate a response to a hypothetical invasion by North Korea. The U.S. personnel are being joined by an unspecified number of South Korean troops.

North Korea calls the exercises a "rehearsal" for an invasion of the North, and says the maneuvers are further proof the U.S. is not serious about finding a solution to the dispute over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

Major David Oten, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Korea, says Pyongyang's comments are routine, and the exercises are purely to prepare the defenses of the Republic of Korea, or ROK, South Korea's official name.

"These are to prepare us to defend against external aggression against the ROK. Every year they [the North Koreans] have the same reaction," explained Major Oten.

This year's exercises, which include computer simulations, along with real soldiers, come amid heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula.

After more than two years of discussion and dispute over its nuclear weapons programs, Pyongyang publicly declared last month that it had nuclear weapons and plans to build more.

As the maneuvers, code-named "Foal Eagle," began, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Seoul from Tokyo to discuss ways of bringing North Korea back to multinational negotiations aimed at dismantling any such programs.

North Korea has blamed what it calls Washington's "hostile attitude" for its refusal to rejoin the negotiations, which involve South Korea, the United States, Japan, China and Russia. Authorities in Pyongyang have also objected to Ms. Rice's description of the North as an "outpost of tyranny."

In Tokyo earlier Saturday, Ms. Rice called on North Korea to return to the negotiating table "immediately," saying, only there, would it find the aid and respect that it desires.