March 23, 2006

US, S.Korea to begin drills amid North anger

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean and U.S. troops will launch
week-long joint exercises on Saturday to test whether they are
ready to be mobilized if there was an armed conflict on the
Korean peninsula, military officers said.

The annual drills have angered North Korea in past years,
and the communist state, which says the drills are a prelude to
a U.S. invasion, has again stepped up anti-U.S. rhetoric.

The participation of the nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft
carrier Abraham Lincoln in the drills showed the level of U.S.
readiness for an invasion has reached a peak, the North's
foreign ministry spokesman said on Thursday.

An officer from the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces
Command, which was set up after the 1950-53 Korean War and
stages the drills, played down the North's rhetoric.

"I would say the level of rhetoric is about the same as
previous years," the officer said by telephone, adding there
was nothing unusual about the U.S. aircraft carrier taking

The drills come amid a stalemate in six-country talks aimed
at ending the North's nuclear programs.

Pyongyang has refused to return to the talks unless the
United States ends a crackdown on firms Washington suspects of
aiding the North in illicit activities such as counterfeiting
and drug trafficking.

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon told Reuters on
Thursday the North appeared to be signaling a desire to return
to the stalled talks, which also involve the South, the United
States, Japan, Russia and China.

About 3,000 U.S. troops from overseas will be reinforcing
17,000 of the 30,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

Two drills are being held concurrently -- Foal Eagle
exercise as well as Reception, Staging, Onward movement and
Integration (RSOI).

RSOI is a largely computer-driven exercise to test the
command capabilities to receive U.S. forces from outside the
Korean peninsula. The Foal Eagle drill trains and tests the
South's defense in combined field operations with U.S. forces.

Despite warming political and commercial ties in recent
years, the two Koreas remain technically at war because the
Korean War ended in a truce and not a full peace treaty.