- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

SEOUL South Korea and the United States yesterday began their largest joint military exercises since the Korean War despite protests from North Korea, which termed the exercises a declaration of war.

Military officials in Seoul said the exercises were purely defensive, designed to evaluate coordination, procedures and systems used by U.S. and South Korean forces.

North Korea criticized the drills as preparations for invasion. A North Korean Foreign Ministry statement claimed the exercises were part of "very dangerous war gambles to seize the chance to provoke a nuclear war" targeting the North.

The drills are "a declaration of war," the ministry added, and the North would "wipe out the aggressors to the last one" if war erupted.

The weeklong exercises merge for the first time two annual joint military maneuvers, a drill called Reception, Staging and Onward Movement Integration and an outdoor field maneuver code-named Foal Eagle. The purpose of the dual maneuvers was training efficiency, said Lee Ferguson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. military command in Seoul.

The war games, which will continue through Wednesday, will be the biggest since the 1950-53 Korean War, Miss Ferguson said. Exercises involve the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and parts of U.S. forces from bases around the Pacific region as well as 650,000 South Korean soldiers. Most of the exercises will be computer simulations under the supervision of the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command.

[Meanwhile, Seoul yesterday confirmed the arrival of 24 more North Korean refugees, days after 25 Northerners reached South Korea after a dramatic dash for freedom through China and the Philippines, Reuters news agency reported.

[The South's National Intelligence Service said most of the 24 North Koreans had fled their country in February 1997 and made their way to South Korea through third countries. It gave no details on their escape routes or arrival times.

[It said the latest arrivals have taken the number of North Koreans to have reached South Korea this year to 162. Last year, a record 583 Northerners defected to the South.]

The joint military exercises come amid growing signs of tension on the Korean peninsula largely because of a stalemate in ties between the United States and North Korea. President Bush dubbed the Pyongyang government part of "an axis of evil," along with Iran and Iraq, in his January State of the Union address.

To ease tensions, members of the U.S.-led U.N. command offered to meet with North Korean military officials to formally notify Pyongyang of the purpose of the military exercises. The North Koreans declined.

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