South Korea and the United States began annual military drills Monday despite North Korea's threat of nuclear strikes in response to the exercises that it calls an invasion rehearsal. Such fiery rhetoric by Pyongyang is not unusual, but the latest warning comes at a time of more tension following the defection of a senior North Korean diplomat and a US plan to place a high-tech defense missile system in South Korea, the AP reports. The North's military said in a statement Monday that it will turn Seoul and Washington into "a heap of ashes through a Korean-style pre-emptive nuclear strike" if they show any signs of aggression toward the North's territory.
The North's "first-strike" units are ready to mount retaliatory attacks on South Korean and US forces involved in the drills, according to the statement, carried by Pyongyang's state media. South Korea's Unification Ministry expressed "strong" regret over the North's warning, saying the drills are defensive in nature. The Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills that began Monday for a 12-day run are largely computer-simulated war games. The training involves 25,000 American troops and 50,000 South Korean soldiers, according to the US and South Korean militaries. (When the annual drills began in 2014, Pyongyang told John Kerry he had a "hideous lantern jaw.")