(LEAD) Allies to hold joint air drills through Saturday: minister
(ATTN: CHANGES dateline; UPDATES with reaction from Seoul's unification ministry in last 2 paras; ADDS photo)
WASHINGTON/SEOUL, Nov. 3 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States have agreed to extend their large-scale joint air exercise by another day, Seoul's defense minister said Thursday following his talks with the Pentagon chief.
The allies were scheduled to end the five-day Vigilant Storm practice on Friday, with around 240 aircraft, including F-35 stealth fighter jets, mobilized around the Korean Peninsula.
But they decided to extend it in response to North Korea's firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Thursday (Seoul time).
Announcing the decision in Seoul, the South's Air Force stopped short of specifying when the training is to finish.
Speaking to reporters in Washington, D.C., following his talks with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup said the drills would be stretched by a day at his direct request to the secretary.
He pointed out the allies have staged such a combined air training every year. This year, however, the scale has become larger, he added. The conservative South Korean administration of Yoon Suk-yeol was launched in May on a pledge to bolster the Seoul-Washington alliance against Pyongyang's brinkmanship.
On Thursday night, the North fired three short-range ballistic missiles into the East Sea apparently in protest against the extension of the training.
The North accused the allies of pushing the regional security to an "uncontrollable" stage by extending the practice.
"It is a very dangerous and false choice," Pak Jong-chon, secretary of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party, said in an English-language statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency.
"The irresponsible decision of the U.S. and South Korea is shoving the present situation caused by provocative military acts of the allied forces to an uncontrollable phase," he added. "The U.S. and South Korea will get to know what an irrevocable and awful mistake they made."
In response, South Korea's unification ministry "strongly" condemned the North's continued provocations and military threats.
"The government makes it clear that tensions for now on the peninsula are attributable to its reckless development of nuclear weapons and missile programs," ministry deputy spokesperson Lee Hyo-jung told a press briefing.
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