South Korea and the United States on Wednesday launched a five-day joint naval exercise in the face of angry North Korean protests and warnings backed by missile tests.
Two separate drills began simultaneously in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) and off the southern port of Mokpo, South Korean military officials said.
The drill off Mokpo was led by the USS George Washington aircraft carrier, which will also take part in a search and rescue exercise next week with South Korean and Japanese maritime forces.
The presence of the carrier has been especially galling for Pyongyang, which denounced it as a “reckless” act of provocation and a modern-day example of “gunboat diplomacy”.
The joint exercise follows an unusually extended series of artillery, rocket and missile tests by North Korea, which fired 100 shells into the East Sea on Monday.
There have also been several short-range ballistic missile tests by the North in recent weeks, including the firing of two Scud missiles on Sunday.
South Korea and the United States hold a series of army and navy drills every year that are habitually condemned by Pyongyang as rehearsals for invasion.
Seoul and Washington insist they are defensive in nature.
The recent North Korean missile tests have coincided with various peace overtures to Seoul, including a proposal to halt all provocative military activity.
Officials from both sides are due to hold rare talks on Thursday to discuss North Korea’s participation in the upcoming Asian Games in the South Korean port city of Incheon.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye has accused Pyongyang of adopting a “two-faced attitude” by proposing a lowering of tensions while continuing its missile launches.
In a meeting Wednesday with Defence Minister Han Min-Koo and top military commanders, Park called for swift retaliation for any provocation by the North.
“If there is any provocation, I expect you to retaliate strongly in the initial stages,” she said, adding the Korean peninsula faces a serious situation due to the North’s “unpredictable” attitude.
“The gravity of the situation does not allow for the least bit of carelessness in maintaining our defence posture,” Park said.