**South Korea and the United States have begun their annual joint military exercise under the threat of military retaliation by North Korea.
About 25,000 U.S. forces and 50,000 South Korean troops are involved in the two-week Operation Ulchi Freedom exercise, which is largely simulated. The annual drills routinely anger Pyongyang, which says it sees the drills as a rehearsal for a full-scale invasion of the North, despite insistence by Seoul and Washington that the drills are purely defensive in nature.
A statement issued Monday by the North’s military said its first-strike units were ready to turn the U.S. and Washington “into a heap of ashes through a Korean-style preemptive nuclear strike,” if North Korea’s sovereignty is threatened.**
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