South Korea, US Begin Annual Military Drills


SEOUL, South Korea - South Korean and U.S. militaries began annual drills Monday amid signs of easing tension on the divided peninsula, with Pyongyang's state media shunning typical rhetoric against what they call a rehearsal for an invasion.

Earlier this year, the Korean Peninsula saw a spike in tensions, with North Korea vowing nuclear wars during earlier annual springtime U.S.-South Korean military exercises. Pyongyang has since eased its rhetoric and pursued dialogues with Seoul and Washington.

The Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills that continue until Aug. 30 are computer-simulated war games that involve 30,000 American and 50,000 South Korean troops, according to South Korea's Defense Ministry and the U.S. military command in Seoul.

The allies say the drills are defensive in nature, but Pyongyang has reacted angrily to them in the past, calling the drills a preparation for a pre-emptive attack. But in an unusual move, North Korean state media have not made any major statements on this year's exercises so far.

"North Korea appears to have determined it's necessary to take a cool-headed attitude" over the drills to maintain efforts to resume jointly run economic cooperation programs, said analyst Cheong Seong-chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea.

The two Koreas last week agreed to work toward reopening a shuttered jointly run factory park, and Pyongyang on Sunday accepted South Korea's offer for talks on reuniting families separated by war.

On Monday, South Korea approved a visit this week by four North Koreans to attend a U.N.-organized youth leadership program. They will be the second group of North Koreans to visit since the new South Korean government of President Park Geun-hye took office in February, according to Park's Unification Ministry. A women's soccer team was in South Korea last month to compete in a regional competition.

Despite the recent conciliatory gestures, some analysts in South Korea are wary of the North's intentions, saying Pyongyang often follows provocations and threats with a charm offensive meant to win aid.

North Korea said Sunday it had agreed to South Korea's offer for Red Cross talks Friday on the family reunions but proposed another set of talks Thursday on resuming lucrative tours of Diamond Mountain, implying it wants the tourism restart in return for allowing the reunions.

South Korea suspended tours to Diamond Mountain after a South Korean woman was shot dead by a North Korean border guard there in 2008. The project had provided a legitimate source of hard currency to North Korea before its suspension.

South Korea's Unification Ministry said Monday it is reviewing North Korea's offer for talks on the mountain tours.

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