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N. Korea seen preparing large drills in East Sea: official
SEOUL, March 3 (Yonhap) -- North Korea has shown signs of gearing up to conduct a large-scale military drill in the East Sea this month, a senior Seoul official said Sunday, the latest demonstration of military power by the North following its nuclear test.

   The latest move comes as Pyongyang has ratcheted up its hostile rhetoric against Seoul and Washington as the two allies launched their annual joint drills on Friday, amid heightened tension following the North's third nuclear test on Feb. 12.

   "We have detected movement that North Korea's military is preparing a large-scale military exercise," a senior military official said, asking for anonymity as he is not authorized to talk about military information. "Nationwide preparations are currently under way to prepare firearms training involving the army, the navy and the air force, which is expected in early March in the East Sea."

   Although the communist state had carried out military training according to its own schedule, the upcoming exercise seems timed to coincide with the annual joint drills by the allies, the official said.

   "It is unprecedented that the North is preparing this type of exercise during the (S. Korea-U.S.) training period," he said.

   The upcoming drill is expected to be bigger than the past ones held in the spring training period. Last year, the North held firearms training in March involving the three main services and another involving army and air force the following month, with both drills held south of the capital city of Pyongyang.

   Seoul officials said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may oversee the drills in a move to send a message to Seoul and its ally.

   Seoul and Washington said the annual drills are defensive in nature, but North Korea has always denounced them as a rehearsal for a northward U.S. invasion aimed at toppling its communist regime.

   South Korean and the U.S. forces started field training exercises, called Foal Eagle, on March 1, with tens of thousands of troops from their ground, naval and air forces. The drill will run through April 30.

   American forces stationed in Japan have departed for South Korea to take part in Foal Eagle, and they are expected to enter a full-scale exercise from this week, according to military officials.

   Separately, joint forces will conduct computer-simulated drills named Key Resolve from March 11-21.

   The Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercises come after North Korea warned the top U.S. commander in South Korea of "miserable destruction" if the American military goes ahead with the two-month-long joint drills.

   Amid heightened tension, South Korean military is also closely monitoring possibilities of an additional atomic test at the Punggye-ri test site in the North's northeastern tip.

   "Preparations for (additional) atomic tests are always in place," another military official said. "Recently, movements were detected in one of the tunnels (at the Punggye-ri site). North Korea has maintained a situation in which a nuclear test is possible once a political decision is made."

   The official warned of further North Korean provocations through nuclear tests, missile launches or attacks on the South using conventional weapons.

   "The North could launch provocations to test (South Korea's) military readiness at a time of political transition. If North Korea does, it would be a mistake," the official said.

   Park Geun-hye, South Korea's first female president who took office on Feb. 25, has repeatedly warned Pyongyang would gain nothing from nuclear development and provocations.

   ejkim@yna.co.kr
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