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US, South Korea Start Annual Military Games - 2003-03-04

The United States and South Korea have started annual military exercises amid rising concerns over North Korea's nuclear programs. The drills begin just a few days after North Korean fighter jets pursued a U.S. spy plane in international air space.

Troops from the United States and South Korea kicked off their month-long war games Tuesday. They have held the exercises every year since 1961. U.S. military officials say they are defense-oriented and unrelated to the current international standoff over North Korea's nuclear programs.

Colonel Marty Doebel says the drill is the largest joint exercise the two allies hold. "This year we have 70 separate field training events, spread across the spectrum of war fighting, capabilities we think are critical to train in for preparing our forces to deter and defend the Republic of South Korea."

Seoul and Washington have given no details on the number of troops participating in the maneuvers, but last year, they involved hundreds of thousands of soldiers, most of them South Korean. The U.S. military bases 37,000 troops in the South and also sends in troops from the United States and the Pacific region to take part.

This year, the exercises take place against a backdrop of escalating tensions with North Korea. Pyongyang has called the war games a rehearsal to invade it and accuses the United States of plotting a nuclear attack. Washington has said repeatedly it has no plans to attack.

U.S. officials say Pyongyang revealed in October that it has a nuclear weapons program, in violation of international treaties. Pyongyang denies the statement, but has restarted idled nuclear facilities and withdrawn from a global nuclear arms pact.

Pyongyang appears to be trying to ratchet up tensions. U.S. officials say that on Sunday, North Korean fighter jets intercepted an American reconnaissance plane over the Sea of Japan. The Pentagon says the North Korean jets shadowed the plane for about 20 minutes, and that one of them used radar to identify it as a potential target. The U.S. plane returned safely to its base in Okinawa, Japan.

The United States says it plans to protest the incident and is conferring with Japan and South Korea on a response.

Japanese government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda says Tokyo is inquiring about the incident and taking a cautious stance so that tensions will not increase.

China also is calling for restraint. But South Korean political analysts say the move is one of a number of recent provocative gestures by North Korea. Pyongyang is pushing Washington to sign a non-aggression treaty and provide aid for its impoverished economy.

The Bush administration says it is willing to talk with the North but rejects signing a treaty and says it will not succumb to blackmail. It also says discussions must take place in a multilateral forum.

Pyongyang, however, says the nuclear issue can only be resolved through bilateral negotiations.