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US, South Korea Kick off Annual Military Exercise

South Korea and the United States kicked off annual joint military drills Monday with a focus on preparing Seoul to retake wartime command of its forces from Washington in 2012.

The drill -- called Ulchi Freedom Guardian -- is a computer-simulated war game. South Korean forces will take on more leadership this year in preparation for the coming command transfer, according to South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. military.

The drill, which runs through Thursday, involves 56,000 South Korean troops and 10,000 U.S. soldiers in South Korea and abroad. It was previously known as Ulchi Focus Lens.South Korean President Lee Myung-bak presided over a meeting of his country's National Security Council as part of civil defense drills related to the exercise. He later convened a Cabinet meeting in an underground bunker at the presidential office and told ministers not to let their guard down concerning inter-Korean relations, according to his office.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak presided over a meeting of his country's National Security Council as part of civil defense drills related to the exercise. He later convened a Cabinet meeting in an underground bunker at the presidential office and told ministers not to let their guard down concerning inter-Korean relations, according to his office.

North Korea routinely condemns joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea, calling them preparations to invade the communist country.

"The joint military exercises ... are new war maneuvers to invade the North," a spokesman for the North Korean military's mission at the truce village of Panmunjom said in a statement carried Monday by the country's official Korean Central News Agency.
The North's military "will deal a resolute counterblow" to U.S. attempts to stifle North Korea using military force, the unnamed spokesman said.

The U.S. and South Korea say the war games are purely defensive.

South Korea transferred control of its troops to the U.S. in 1950 after the outbreak of the Korean War. It regained peacetime control in 1994, but the top U.S. general here is still supposed to command South Korean forces if war breaks out.

In a pact finalized last year, South Korea and the U.S. agreed Seoul will retake wartime control of its forces in April 2012.

About 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically at war.

North Korea's main state newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, repeated the North's demand that the U.S. replace the armistice with a peace treaty. The U.S. — which fought in the Korean War and also signed the armistice — has said a peace treaty could only be fully considered after North Korea totally abandons its nuclear programs.

This year's military exercise comes amid lingering tensions on the Korean peninsula over the shooting death last month of a South Korean tourist at a North Korean mountain resort.

The North has said the tourist was shot because she entered a restricted military area and ignored warnings to stop. In response, Seoul suspended tours to the resort and demanded the North allow investigators into the area. North Korea has refused.