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U.S., South Korea will launch military exercise next week to counter North Korean threat

South Korean Col. Lee Sung-jun (L) and U.S. Col. Isaac Taylor (R) announced the upcoming Freedom Shield 2024 joint military exercise at a press conference Wednesday. The exercise will run from Mar. 4-14 and is focused on countering North Korea's growing nuclear threat. Photo courtesy of Republic of Korea Ministry of Defense
South Korean Col. Lee Sung-jun (L) and U.S. Col. Isaac Taylor (R) announced the upcoming Freedom Shield 2024 joint military exercise at a press conference Wednesday. The exercise will run from Mar. 4-14 and is focused on countering North Korea's growing nuclear threat. Photo courtesy of Republic of Korea Ministry of Defense

SEOUL, Feb. 28 (UPI) -- The United States and South Korea will kick off their annual springtime military exercise next week, both countries' militaries announced Wednesday, with an emphasis on countering North Korea's growing nuclear threat.

The Freedom Shield 2024 exercise consists of both computer-simulated and field-based training and will run from March 4-14, U.S. Forces Korea said in a press release.

This year's exercise includes 48 joint field drills -- almost twice as many as last year -- including air assault and tactical live-fire and bombing drills, Col. Lee Sung-jun, spokesman for South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a joint press briefing on Wednesday.

"We will conduct training focused on neutralizing the North Korean nuclear threat," Lee said.

"Our military is prepared to immediately and strongly punish North Korea's provocations to the end, and through this exercise, we will further strengthen our readiness to respond firmly," he added.

Freedom Shield 2024 will include 48 joint field drills, almost twice as many as last year's exercise. File Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
Freedom Shield 2024 will include 48 joint field drills, almost twice as many as last year's exercise. File Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

The joint drills come as tensions remain at the highest point in years on the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang has conducted a flurry of weapons tests since the start of the year and has ramped up its bellicose rhetoric toward South Korea, labeling Seoul its "principal enemy" last month.

The United States and South Korea, meanwhile, have increased their military cooperation amid the growing provocations from North Korea, with expanded drills and the deployment of U.S. assets such as a nuclear ballistic missile submarine to the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea regularly condemns the allies' joint exercises as rehearsals for an invasion and has used the drills as a pretext for its own missile tests.

U.S. Forces Korea spokesman Col. Isaac Taylor said Wednesday that the Freedom Shield exercise has always been conducted for training and deterrence purposes.

"Professional militaries train," Taylor said. "The U.S. and ROK have worked together for years to ensure security and stability here on the peninsula. If you look back historically, the exercise has been defensive in nature."

The Republic of Korea is the official name of South Korea.

He added that Seoul and Washington have remained transparent with their plans around the drills.

"We're having this press conference and announcing that we're doing an exercise," Taylor said. "We know internationally people will see this message and based off our historical trends, understand what we are doing on the peninsula with this exercise."

In addition to U.S. and South Korean forces, personnel from eleven other member countries of the United Nations Command will join the exercise. Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Colombia, France, Greece, Italy, New Zealand, the Philippines and Thailand will take part in different capacities, the USFK said.

The U.S.-led UNC plays a key role in maintaining and enforcing the armistice agreement that halted fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War, with duties that include controlling DMZ access and communicating with the North Korean military.

The Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission will observe the drills, the USFK added. The NNSC serves to oversee compliance with the terms of the armistice agreement.