US and South Korean troops have staged a river-crossing drill near the world's last Cold War frontier amid signs North Korea was preparing to conduct
another missile test.
Hundreds of soldiers, backed by tanks and armoured vehicles, marched through a smoke screen to cross a temporary bridge across the Imjin River, which
flows along the border.
The drill, 10 kilometres south of the demilitarised zone which has divided the Korean peninsula since the 1950-53 Korean War, highlights two-day joint
manoeuvres by 5000 US and South Korean troops that began here yesterday.
It comes amid heightened vigilance against North Korea, which closed waters off its east coast from yesterday to Tuesday in possible preparations for
a second anti-ship cruise missile test.
"We have been closely monitoring (North Korea)," an official from Seoul's military joint chief of staff said.
But he conceded that South Korea was resorting to information provided by a US satellite because Washington suspended surveillance flights after one
of its spy planes was intercepted by North Korean fighters a week ago.
South Korean Defence Minister Cho Young-Kil said on Friday that the February 24 test of North Korea's anti-ship missile, with a range estimated at
160 kilometres, was a failure as it exploded after developing engine problems.
Short-range missile tests do not violate international treaties. But analysts saw the missile test as an attempt by Pyongyang to step up pressure for
US concessions in a stand-off over its nuclear weapons drive.
The North surprised the world by firing a ballistic missile over Japan in 1998.
A new test could set the stage for volatile aerial confrontation between the Cold War foes as US intelligence is watching closely for signs of
reactivation of a plutonium processing plant at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex.
Washington and Pyongyang have been locked in a tense stand-off since the crisis erupted in October when North Korea allegedly admitted to US officials
that it had kept up a secret nuclear program in breach of a 1994 accord.
The crisis escalated on March 2 when four North Korean fighters armed with heat-seeking missiles surprised a US RC-135S surveillance plane, flying
within metres of it and chasing it for 22 minutes.
US defence officials said they would probably send an Aegis warship equipped with powerful air defence radars into waters near the Korean peninsula to
protect US surveillance flights.
The United States has deployed long-range bombers to the island of Guam in the western Pacific as a deterrent to any aggression by North Korea.
A US aircraft carrier is on its way to waters near the Korean peninsula as part of the joint war games that began last week.
Today, Rodong Sinmun, the North's ruling Workers Party newspaper, condemned the exercises as preparations for an invasion.
"The US seeks to indiscriminately destroy the 'enemy' military bases and communications control facilities, manpower and strategic targets through
its large-scale intensive pre-emptive air strikes," it said.
It warned North Korean troops were ready to "cope with an all-out war with an all-out war."
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