SEOUL – South Korea and the United States responded on Monday to North Korea’s latest missile test conducted in late November by launching their largest-ever air combat exercise, another show of strength seeking to put pressure on Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table.
The US-South Korea air combat drills, named “Vigilant ACE,” seek to improve the all-weather, day and night combined operational capacity of the two countries, a spokesperson for the South Korean Defense Ministry told EFE.
The US Seventh Air Force said in a statement that the drills, which would run through until Dec. 8, “are comparable in scale to previous editions of ‘Vigilant ACE.’”
Although the Defense Ministry spokesperson did not confirm if the exercises were the largest air drills ever carried out jointly by Washington and Seoul, local media suggested that this year’s operation marks their largest joint air drills ever recorded, with 230 aircraft and some 12,000 troops mobilized as part of the exercise.
The US has sent several so-called fifth generation stealth fighter jets, including six F-22s and 12 F-35s, and two strategic B-1B bombers and six EA-18G electronic warfare aircrafts in the drills.
Although the annual “Vigilant ACE” exercise was planned ahead of North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test on Wednesday, it serves as a strong response to the test.
The North Korean Army’s test firing of the Hwasong-15, its most advanced intercontinental missile to date, has put Pyongyang closer to striking the US with nuclear weapons.
During the drills, which began Monday and involve South Korea’s F-15, KF-16 and F-5 fighter jets, the allies will simulate attacks on North Korean nuclear facilities and self-propelled platforms such as those used by the Kim Jong-un regime to deploy their missiles.
Such use of military resources is in line with the agreement endorsed between Washington and Seoul in October to expand the “rotational deployment” of US strategic assets on the Korean peninsula with an aim to put pressure on Pyongyang to return to the talks for its denuclearization.
North Korea, in a statement in its state-owned newspaper, Rodong Sinmun denounced the exercises, saying the US and the South Korean puppet forces are so foolish as to run amok with such stealth fighters.
According to the text, these drills are a dangerous provocation adding to the tense situation on the Korean peninsula on the verge of a nuclear war.
However, a spokesperson for the South Korean Unification Ministry again insisted Monday at a press conference that these types of drills are “defensive” in nature.
Dozens of people gathered in front of the US Embassy in Seoul to protest against the “Vigilant ACE” and demand all parties concerned hold dialogue to resolve the current crisis in a peaceful manner.
North Korea’s constant weapons tests, combined with US President Donald Trump’s war rhetoric, has escalated tensions in the peninsula to unprecedented levels since the end of overt hostilities in the Korean War (1950-53).