South Korea, US to stage annual drills focusing on Korea nuclear threats

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea and the United States will begin their annual spring military drills next week with a focus on heading off North Korea's potential use of nuclear weapons, officials said on Wednesday.

The Freedom Shield exercises, set for March 4-14, come as North Korea continues to test missiles and other weapons systems and develop its nuclear capabilities, and will be first since Pyongyang scrapped a 2018 inter-Korean military pact in November.

The drills will be "tough and realistic", and based on scenarios that reflect lessons from recent conflicts, officials from the two countries' militaries said at a briefing.

There will be 48 rounds of combined field training, including air assault and air strikes, participated by twice the number of troops from both sides compared with last year, said Col. Lee Sung-jun, spokesperson for South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The exercises are chiefly designed to neutralise North Korea's nuclear threats, including by "identifying and striking" cruise missiles, which Pyongyang had suggested could carry nuclear warheads.

"The two countries are jointly developing a counter operation concept against North Korea's nuclear and missile threats and it will be applied to deter and prevent their further and possible nuclear usage," Lee said.

A nuclear attack scenario will be integrated into summertime drills, he added.

Col. Isaac Taylor of U.S. Forces Korea, said American strategic assets will likely be deployed to the peninsula in line with past practices, but did not elaborate citing security protocol. "Strategic" is a term often used to describe nuclear forces.

North Korea has accused the allies of stoking tensions with military drills, calling them rehearsals for a nuclear war.

Seoul and Washington say the exercises are defensive and a response to the North's threats.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin. Editing by Gerry Doyle)