SEOUL (Reuters) - U.S. and South Korean troops started military drills on Monday that are likely to increase regional tensions already high due to the North's July 5 missile launches and reports it is preparing for a nuclear test.
The annual exercises, dubbed Ulchi Focus Lens, have been held without major incident in South Korea for decades. Yet the North brands them as a prelude to invasion and nuclear war, vowing to boost its own nuclear deterrent in response.
Some are wondering if North Korea may use this year's drills as an excuse to step up preparations for a nuclear test.
Analysts said North Korea could be trying an extreme form of sabre rattling by giving signs of a possible nuclear test in the hope of forcing the international community, and Washington in particular, into making concessions to the poor and isolated state.
"The joint military exercises are another grave military provocation to the DPRK (North Korea). They are nothing but a very dangerous military adventure driving the situation of the Korean peninsula to the brink of a war," its official KCNA news agency said on Friday.
The two Koreas are technically still at war because the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
The United States has about 30,000 troops in the South to support the more than 650,000 troops South Korea has in uniform. North Korea has a 1.2 million-strong army, mostly stationed near the heavily fortified border with the South.
The North defied international warnings and test-fired seven missiles on July 5, including its long-range Taepodong-2, which experts said could hit parts of U.S. territory.
ABC News reported last week that a U.S. intelligence agency had observed suspicious vehicle movements at a suspected North Korean test site. It quoted an unidentified senior State Department official as saying a test was a real possibility.
U.S. President George W. Bush said on Friday North Korea would pose a threat to the world if it tested a nuclear bomb.
Government officials in Washington and Seoul would not confirm the reports of an impending test, with South Korea's point man for the North saying he was sceptical.
Still, South Korea has increased its monitoring of a possible test and dispatched troops to a government seismological institute that can detect an underground nuclear explosion, local media reported.
"North Korea's willingness to risk international retribution for launching a long-range missile increases the potential for Pyongyang to conduct a nuclear weapons test," said Bruce Klingner, an expert on Korean affairs for the U.S.-based Eurasia Group.
"There is a greater potential for North Korea to conduct a nuclear test than at any time in the past. We assess a 10-20 percent likelihood of a test during the next two months, with a higher potential by year's end," he said in an e-mail.
Ulchi Focus Lens will run until Sept. 1. The drills, which test computer systems and command structures, involve about 5,000 U.S. troops on the peninsula, 3,000 U.S. troops in the Pacific and U.S. mainland and an undisclosed number of South Korean troops, a U.S. Forces Korea spokesman said.
North Korea declared itself a nuclear power in February 2005, without carrying out a test. While North Korea has worked for years to develop an atomic bomb, proliferation experts are not sure whether it has actually managed to do so.
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