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U.S., South Korea Begin Annual Show Of Force With Military Exercises

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Large-scale, joint Air Force drills between the U.S. and South Korea are underway on the Korean peninsula. South Korea's defense ministry says these drills were long planned, but clearly they come at an especially tense time. Here's NPR's Elise Hu.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Fighter jets and bombers are flying in the South Korean skies as part of the five-day military exercises. They involve some 230 warplanes, 12,000 U.S. military personnel joining with South Korean troops and simulated attacks on mock North Korea nuclear and missile targets.

DANIEL PINKSTON: That's what militaries do. They train and conduct exercises.

HU: Daniel Pinkston is a former U.S. Air Force linguist and an international relations lecturer at Troy University. When it comes to tensions here, he says it's not the war games he's worried about.

PINKSTON: What I'm concerned about is the incoherent foreign policy and the incoherent messaging coming out of Washington and the apparent leadership crisis in the U.S.

HU: Last week, North Korea tested a missile that could, in theory, reach the U.S. East Coast, something Pyongyang called a great success.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

HU: The regime also said it, quote, "finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force." American leaders responded with rhetoric of their own, musing publicly about a possible pre-emptive strike. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham went as far as to say the 28,000 U.S. forces here should no longer base their spouses and children in South Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSEY GRAHAM: And I think it's now time to start moving American dependents out of South Korea.

HU: If that's alarming, it's unclear if the warnings are part of a strategy or an ad hoc response to North Korea's rapid weapons advancements.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUNG-IN MOON: I hope that Trump administration would come up with a more creative approach to North Korea.

HU: Chung-in Moon, who is special adviser to the South Korean president, told CNN earlier this fall he's still hoping for talks with North Korea toward a freeze on nuclear development.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUNG-IN: Without that, you know, optimism, I - there is no hope for us.

HU: Analysts say the only thing frozen right now is dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea. And that ups the risk for potential miscalculations, especially when American and South Korean forces are staging simulated war. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASERATI'S "THIEVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.