Continued from page 1

North Korea has strongly protested the exercises, saying they are a provocation, and has threatened retaliation. In flourishes of rhetoric typical of the regime, it vowed to respond with a “sacred war” and a “powerful nuclear deterrence.”

“Should the U.S. imperialists and (South Korea) finally ignite a new war of aggression … (North Korea) will mobilize the tremendous military potential, including its nuclear deterrence for self-defense, and thus wipe out the aggressors,” North Korea’s defense chief, Kim Yong Chun, said in Pyongyang on Monday, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

North Korea often cites the U.S. military presence in the region, with nuclear-powered warships such as the George Washington, as a key reason it needs atomic weapons.

U.S. officials say that the maneuvers, held well away from North Korea’s border, are not intended to provoke a response but are a message that further aggression will not be tolerated.

On Monday, Gen. Han Min-goo, chief of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, toured the George Washington to demonstrate the allies’ solidarity.

The exercises are the first in a series of U.S.-South Korean maneuvers conducted in the East Sea and in the Yellow Sea closer to China’s shores. They are the first to employ F-22 jets — stealth fighters capable of evading North Korean air defenses — in South Korea.

The North routinely threatens retaliation when South Korea and the United States hold joint military drills, which Pyongyang sees as a rehearsal for an invasion. The United States keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea and another 50,000 in Japan but says it has no intention of invading the North.

However, the sinking of the Cheonan has heightened tensions in the region. North Korea says the investigation results were fraudulent and has warned against any punishment.

Still, Capt. Ross Myers, commander of the George Washington’s air wing, said the threats were being taken seriously.

“There is a lot they can do,” he said. “They have ships; they have subs; they have airplanes. They are a credible threat.”

Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.