US, South Korea kick off five days of stealth jet drills

The US and South Korea have begun their largest-ever combined aerial drills, days after the North fired its latest ICBM. Pyongyang has labelled the drills an "all-out provocation" and accused the US of "begging for war."

South Korea and the US launched five days of air combat drills on Monday, in what has widely been seen as the two countries' largest and most sophisticated joint military exercise to date.

Hundreds of aircraft and two dozen stealth jets roared into the South Korean sky as the war games drills, called Vigilant Ace, practiced precision strikes on mock North Korean nuclear and missile sites.

Read more: South says North Korea's latest missile test is bigger threat

The US intends to send some of its most important military assets, including six F-22 and 18 F-35 stealth fighter jets to South Korea for the exercises. This is the largest number of 5th-generation US fighters used in a single exercise, along with around 12,000 US service personnel, including marines and navy troops.

South Korean media reported that two long-range B-1B bombers could also join in the war games this week, although a US Air Force spokesman could not confirm the reports.

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'Diplomatic solution' needed for North Korea

Trump 'begging for war'

The North Korean regime was quick to denounce the joint US-South Korea drills, labelling them an "all-out provocation."

Pyongyang's state news agency KCNA warned on Sunday that the drills would push the peninsula "to the brink of nuclear war," although such language is commonplace in the North because the country views these regular military exercises south of its border as preparations for an invasion.

Over the weekend, North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country called Trump "insane," while KCNA, citing a military spokesperson, said the Trump administration was "begging for nuclear war by staging an extremely dangerous nuclear gamble on the Korean peninsula".

North Korean military tech improving

The joint drills were planned to take place before North Korea last week launched its latest and potentially its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test to date. However, the North's latest provocation has raised the urgency around the drills.

The North's latest missile is believed to have remained airborne for around 50 minutes before landing in the Sea of Japan. Following the test, Pyongyang boasted that it was capable of delivering a "super-large" nuclear warhead to the US mainland at any time.

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Major achievement

In early June 2017, North Korea test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time. Testing an ICBM marked a major military achievement for Pyongyang and a serious escalation of tensions with the United States and its allies in the region, particularly South Korea and Japan.


Trouble with warheads

At the time, defense experts said the ICBM could reach as far as the US states of Alaska and Hawaii. However, it was unclear if North Korea can field an ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead on its cone that could survive reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. North Korean state media claimed the ICBM was capable of carrying a "large, heavy nuclear warhead" to any part of the United States.


Pyongyang's nuclear tests - six times and counting

The ICBM is believed to be a step forward in the North's nuclear program. Despite pressure from the international community, Pyongyang has made no secret of its nuclear ambitions. Alongside its ritual ballistic missile tests, North Korea has conducted nuclear tests on at least six occasions, including one in September 2017.


US running out of patience?

Responding to the first ICBM test with a show of force, the US and South Korean troops on conducted "deep strike" precision missile drills using Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and the Republic of Korea's Hyunmoo Missile II. In April, the US sent its Carl Vinson aircraft carrier towards the Korean Peninsula, saying it was taking prudent measures against the North.


Testing the boundaries

Ignoring international condemnation, Pyongyang test-launched another rocket on July 28, 2017, just weeks after its first ICBM test. In both of the tests, North Korea used Hwasong-14 missile, but the second one reached a higher altitude and traveled a larger distance than the first one, according to the state media.


Whole of US within range?

Pyongyang conducted its third test November 29, using a newly developed Hwasong-15 missile. US, Japanese and South Korean officials said it rose to about 4,500 km (2,800 miles) and flew 960 kilometers (600 miles) over about 50 minutes before landing in Japan's exclusive economic zone off the country's coast.


One of the world's largest militaries

Apart from a developing missile and nuclear program, North Korea has a powerful army with 700,000 active troops and another 4.5 million in the reserves. It can call upon almost a quarter of its population to serve in the army at any given time. The North's bloated army is believed to outnumber its southern neighbor's by two-to-one.


Vast capabilities

According to the 2017 Global Firepower Index, the North has, as part of a far-reaching arsenal, 458 fighter aircraft, 5,025 combat tanks, 76 submarines, and 5,200,000 total military personnel. The picture above from 2013 shows leader Kim Jong Un ordering strategic rocket forces to be on standby to strike US and South Korean targets at any time.


Enemies all around

Alongside the United States, Pyongyang views its neighbors South Korea and Japan as its two other main enemies. North Korea has used US military exercises in the region as means of galvanizing its people, claiming that the exercises are dress rehearsals for an impending invasion.


Huge, colorful demonstrations of military might

Every year, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and citizens roll through the streets of the capital Pyongyang to take part in the North's military parades. Preparations for the rallies often begin months in advance, and the parades usually mark important anniversaries linked with the Communist Party or Kim Jong Un's family.

US military officials have cast doubts over those claims saying that, while the latest test demonstrated a significant improvement in range, a missile carrying a much heavier nuclear warhead would struggle to travel as far.

Still, with tensions surging between US President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un, senior US officials have appeared increasingly concerned over the threat of war.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a foreign policy hawk, warned on Sunday that the US was moving closer to "pre-emptive war" with Pyongyang. "If there's an underground nuclear test (by the North), then you need to get ready for a very serious response by the United States," Graham told "Face the Nation" on US broadcaster CBS, adding that he believed it was time for families of the 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea to leave.

The US has not announced any formal decision to evacuate its citizens from the peninsula.

Also on Sunday, Trump's National Security Adviser HR McMaster said that the president would take care of North Korea's threats by "doing more ourselves."

Read more: US ban on North Korea travel comes into force

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."

The isolated rogue nation has staged six increasingly powerful atomic tests since 2006 -- most recently in September when it supposedly detonated a hydrogen bomb.

Since the beginning of the year, Pyongyang had conducted missiles tests at a rate of almost two to three per month, but paused in September after it successfully fired a missile over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido and into the Pacific Ocean

Wednesday's ICBM launch was the North Korean regime's first since then.

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dm/ng (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)