SEOUL – North Korea fired two missiles into the sea on Monday as the US and South Korea kicked off joint military drills.
The annual exercises always trigger a surge in military tensions and warlike rhetoric on the divided peninsula, and analysts saw the North's missile tests as a prelude to a concerted campaign of sabre rattling.
"And if there is a particularly sharp escalation, we could see the North orchestrating some kind of clash on the maritime border," said Jeung Young-Tae, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
The missile launches came with a stern warning from the North Korean People's Army (KPA) that this year's military drills would bring the peninsula "towards the brink of war".
The South Korean military said the two North Korean missiles, with a range of around 500km, were fired from the western port city of Nampo and traversed the country before falling into the sea off the east coast.
Describing the tests as a "provocation" in response to the start of the military exercises, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that it remained "vigilant against any additional launches".
"The situation on the Korean peninsula is again inching close to the brink of a war," a spokesman for the KPA General Staff was quoted as saying on Monday by the North's official KCNA news agency.
North Korea has threatened attacks, including nuclear strikes, on the US before, although it has never demonstrated a missile capability that would reach the US mainland.
The largest element of the two South Korea-US drills that began on Monday is Foal Eagle, an eight-week exercise involving air, ground and naval field training, with around 200,000 Korean and 3,700 US troops.
The other is a week-long, largely computer-simulated joint drill called Key Resolve.
Seoul and Washington insist the exercises are defence-based in nature. AFP