(LEAD) S. Korea, U.S. to kick off largest-ever joint exercise
(ATTN: UPDATES with N. Korean threat at end)
SEOUL, March 6 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States will launch their largest-ever joint exercise this week to warn North Korea against further provocations, a South Korean military official said Sunday.
The Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises running from Monday through April 30 will be the largest in scale since Pyongyang's torpedo attack on the South Korean corvette Cheonan in 2010, which is what originally triggered these annual drills, the official said on the condition of anonymity.
This year's exercise will involve more than 300,000 South Korean and 15,000 U.S. troops and simulate previously unattempted strategies.
The Key Resolve portion of the exercise will include OPLAN 5015, which aims to remove the North's weapons of mass destruction and prepare the allied troops for a pre-emptive strike in the event of a North Korean attack.
South Korean military vehicles on the move near the inter-Korean border, northeast of Seoul, on March 4, 2016. (Yonhap)
"OPLAN 5015 was included in the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian (UFG) exercise last year, but this is the first time for it to be carried out in a Key Resolve exercise," another South Korean military official said. The UFG is another combined military exercise conducted by South Korea and the U.S.
Meanwhile, this year's Ssangyong exercise will also be the largest ever, involving more than 5,000 South Korean marine and Navy personnel, 7,000 U.S. marine troops and five maritime prepositioning ships. It runs from Monday to March 18.
During the exercise period, the allies will strengthen their monitoring of the North for any signs of pre-emptive attack.
"We will carry out these exercises while keeping tabs on signs of North Korean provocations," a South Korean official said. "If the North provokes us during this exercise, the U.S. and our troops will retaliate with an attack ten-fold stronger."
The warning was made after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered his military to be on standby for pre-emptive nuclear strikes earlier this week.
On Sunday North Korea continued its bellicose rhetoric, threatening to "demolish" the U.S. mainland in case of provocations.
"Our targets are the U.S. bases in South Korea and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region as well as the U.S. mainland," reads the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the North's ruling Workers' Party of Korea. "We have state-of-the-art weapons that no country in the world has previously possessed and that can bombard the U.S. in any way we want."
Meanwhile, South Korea and the U.S. say the North lacks evidence to back up its claimed possession of a nuclear arsenal.
"We can't determine the whereabouts of the nuclear weapons North Korea claims to have placed on combat readiness," a South Korean official said on the condition of anonymity. "They may have created a prototype, but we suspect they may just be blackmailing us."