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(LEAD) South Korea, U.S. will continue military exercise despite N.K. protest: ministry

All Headlines 11:33 May 16, 2018

(ATTN: CHANGES headline, lead; ADDS photo; UPDATES throughout with new info)

SEOUL, May 16 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States will press ahead with their ongoing combined air drills as planned, Seoul's defense ministry said Wednesday, hours after North Korea canceled high-level cross-border talks in protest against the exercise.

The annual two-week Max Thunder exercise began on Friday, involving 100 aircraft, including eight F-22 radar-evading fighter jets, as well as F-15Ks and F-16s. It is hosted by South Korea's Air Force Operations Command and the U.S. 7th Air Force.

"The exercise will proceed as planned, and regarding that, there are no differences between the South and U.S.," the ministry said in a text message sent to reporters.

"On top of that, the exercise is designed to enhance the capability of pilots and is not an implementation of an operational plan or an attack maneuver," it added.

The remarks came after Defense Minister Song Young-moo and Gen. Vincent Brooks, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, held an emergency meeting to apparently discuss Pyongyang's abrupt decision to cancel the inter-Korean talks slated for Wednesday.

This photo, taken May 11, shows A-10 warplanes at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

The North's Korean Central News Agency lambasted the drills as a rehearsal for invasion and a provocation amid thawing inter-Korean ties.

Earlier in the day, a source said a U.S. B-52 strategic bomber might not participate in the ongoing drills.

"In the training, the U.S. F-22 stealth fighters have already participated, while the B-52 has yet to join," the source said on condition of anonymity. "It appears that the B-52 might not attend the exercise, which runs through May 25."

Pyongyang has repeatedly shown its aversion to the deployment of the B-52 bomber, part of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, over the peninsula.

Its protest came after South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un issued their landmark summit declaration last month, in which they pledged to halt all hostile acts on land, sea and air.

But the North's angry reaction has caused concerns that ongoing peace efforts could be jeopardized.

Pyongyang's protest also reinforced the conservative view that the communist state might use the inter-Korean declaration to oppose any allied drills that form an integral part of the Seoul-Washington collective defense system.

This combined photo shows Defense Minister Song Young-moo (L) and Gen. Vincent Brooks, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea. (Yonhap)

sshluck@yna.co.kr
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