SEOUL, March 4 (UPI) -- South Korea and the United States launched a major joint military exercise Tuesday despite protests from North Korea, which called the drills a prelude to a U.S.-led invasion.
The monthlong war game came at a time when tensions are rising on the Korean peninsula after North Korean fighter jets intercepted a U.S. spy plane over the weekend.
North Korea criticized the joint military exercises as a "premeditated military operation to stifle" the communist regime, warning of "nuclear disasters" around the world if it was attacked by the United States.
"The United States and South Korea have started their annual military exercise of Foal Eagle that will continue through April 2," a spokesman of the U.S.-South Korea Combined Forces Command told United Press International.
The official said the command had informed North Korea about the exercise to avoid any confrontation. The command said the maneuver was unrelated to fresh concerns about North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons and its missiles.
The joint military drills are "defense-oriented" and designed to improve the U.S.-South Korean combined forces' ability to defend South Korea against "external aggression," the command said in an earlier news release.
The United States and South Korea are scheduled to stage one more military exercise, "Reception, Staging, Onward Movement and Integration," from March 19-26.
South Korea is a key U.S. ally and is home to 37,000 U.S. troops who have been stationed to help defend it from a potential conflict with North Korea under a bilateral defense treaty signed after the Korean War.
North Korea angrily responded to the war games, calling for an immediate end of the drills.
"These unceasing U.S. war drills drive the situation on the Korean peninsula to such a dangerous pitch of tension that a nuclear war may break out on it any moment," the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency said. "All this is part of its premeditated military operation to stifle the DPRK (North Korea) with pre-emptive nuclear strikes and its escalation to all intents and purposes," it said, warning the United States "would be held wholly accountable for the disastrous consequences to be entailed."
The war games came at a time when military tensions are mounting in the wake of North Korea's interception of a U.S. spy plane, the most alarming military face-off between the two countries since a nuclear crisis erupted last year.
Four North Korean MiG fighters intercepted and threatened to shoot down a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane in international airspace between the Korean peninsula and Japan on Sunday. The interception came after North Korea accused the United States of conducting spy plane flights infringing on North Korean airspace almost daily since Feb. 21, saying they showed the United States was preparing for war on the communist state.
A defense official here told UPI that the U.S.-led U.N. Command, which oversees an armistice on the Korean peninsula, would formally protest about the incident.
"There a possibility that similar incidents will take place because it showed a sense of crisis facing North Korea," he said.
North Korea has raised concerns that it could be the U.S. military's next target after a war in Iraq and urged its people to brace for attack.
The defense official said there were no unusual movements by North Korean troops along the 150-mile inter-Korean border, the world's most heavily armed Cold War frontier.