Hundreds of aircraft including two dozen stealth jets began training on Monday as the United States and South Korea launched their biggest-ever combined air force exercise.
The war games come a week after North Korea test-fired its most powerful missile ever, an ICBM that may be able to target the eastern seaboard of the United States.
The five-day drill, called Vigilant Ace, is meant to improve the allies’ wartime capabilities and preparedness, South Korea’s defence ministry said.
The US Seventh Air Force sent major strategic military assets that include six F-22 and 18 F-35 stealth fighter jets for the annual training exercise in the Korean Peninsula. About 12,000 US military personnel are participating.
In total, 230 aircraft will be flying at eight US and South Korean military installations in the South.
Some local media report that B-1B bombers will also join aerial drills, but officials did not confirm their participation.
The training, held each year in late autumn, is not in response to any incident or provocation, the Seventh Air Force said in a statement.
North Korea’s state media said the drill pushes the Korean Peninsula “to the brink of nuclear war”. Such language is typical in North Korean propaganda because the country claims US-South Korean drills are preparation for invasion.
Nevertheless, tensions are at a particularly dangerous point as North Korea edges toward its goal of a viable arsenal of nuclear-tipped long-range missiles, and as US President Donald Trump ramps up his rhetoric toward the North, threatening, for instance, to unleash “fire and fury” against the country.
Pyongyang will “seriously consider” counter-measures against the drill, and the US and South Korea will “pay dearly for their provocations”, the Korean Central News Agency said on Sunday before the start of the exercises.
While many South Koreans typically ignore North Korea’s rhetoric, some senior American officials have expressed concern following the ICBM test, North Korea’s third.
On Sunday, Lindsey Graham, a Republican US senator from the state of South Carolina, said he believes it is time for US military families in South Korea to leave the country because conflict with North Korea is getting close.
The US government has not announced a formal decision to evacuate American citizens from South Korea, and there were no such signs in the diplomatic community in Seoul. An evacuation of dependants by Seoul’s closest ally and major military defender could prompt a panicked reaction by other countries, and among South Koreans.
In addition to American diplomats and other embassy workers, about 28,500 US troops operate in South Korea, many of whom take their families on their postings and live on huge, well-guarded military bases.
Also on Sunday, the White House’s national security adviser said Mr Trump will take care of North Korean threats by “doing more ourselves”.
“The priorities that the president’s given us to move as quickly as we can to resolve this crisis with North Korea,” General HR McMaster told Fox News.
“If necessary, the president and the United States will have to take care of it, because he has said he’s not going to allow this murderous, rogue regime to threaten the United States.”