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U.S., South Korea begin joint military exercise on tense Korean Peninsula

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Helicopters are seen at Camp Humphreys, the U.S. military headquarters in Pyongtaek, South Korea, as American and South Korean forces  kicked off their springtime combined training exercise on Monday. Photo by Yonhap
Helicopters are seen at Camp Humphreys, the U.S. military headquarters in Pyongtaek, South Korea, as American and South Korean forces  kicked off their springtime combined training exercise on Monday. Photo by Yonhap

SEOUL, April 18 (UPI) -- American and South Korean forces kicked off their annual springtime joint military exercise on Monday amid growing concerns over a potential nuclear weapons test by North Korea.

The drills will run for nine days and will be entirely computer simulated, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a text message sent to reporters on Sunday. No field maneuvers will be involved.

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"This exercise will serve as an opportunity to improve the combined operational capability of U.S. and South Korean soldiers and further solidify their combined defense posture," the JCS message said.

North Korea -- which routinely condemns the combined exercises as rehearsals for an invasion -- conducted its latest missile test on Saturday, launching what it called a "new-type tactical guided weapon system" that can be used with nuclear warheads.

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The new missile showed "great significance in drastically improving the firepower of the frontline long-range artillery units and enhancing the efficiency in the operation of tactical nukes," state-run Korean Central News Agency reported on Sunday.

The South Korean military said that it had detected two projectiles fired from North Korea into the sea on Saturday evening. They traveled 68 miles at speed of Mach 4.0 and reached an altitude of 15 miles, the JCS said in a text message to reporters.

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Images of the missiles released by North Korea showed a resemblance to the country's KN-23, analysts said, a highly maneuverable short-range ballistic missile similar to Russia's Iskander.

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During an address at the ruling Workers' Party congress in January 2021, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un highlighted tactical nuclear weapons -- smaller bombs designed to be used at closer distances or on the battlefield -- as a key military development goal.

Earlier this month, Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un, appeared to underline the threat of tactical nuclear weapons, warning that the North would unleash its nuclear arsenal against South Korea's military forces if attacked.

The launch on Saturday was Pyongyang's 13th weapons test this year, including the March 24 firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile with the range to reach the entire continental United States.

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Recent satellite imagery shows that North Korea is continuing to restore one of the tunnels at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site, monitoring site 38 North said last week. Officials from Seoul and Washington have indicated that they are on alert for a nuclear detonation.

North Korea celebrated the birth anniversary of its founder Kim Sung Il on Friday with fireworks and a mass dance performance, according to state-run media, but did not hold a military parade. Observers are keeping an eye on another upcoming holiday for a potential provocation, the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People's Revolutionary Army on April 25.

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Washington's special envoy for North Korea, Sung Kim, arrived in Seoul Monday for a five-day trip.

Kim met with his South Korean counterpart on Monday, and expressed concern about North Korea's "escalatory actions," according to Yonhap.

"We will continue to work closely to respond responsibly and decisively to the provocative behavior," he said.

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