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S. Korea, Japan, US begin drill amid N. Korea protest

SEOUL -- South Korea, Japan and the United States Thursday began a joint naval exercise involving destroyers, supply ships and helicopters in a move denounced by North Korea as a “reckless provocation.”

Seoul's defense ministry said the two-day drill would practice humanitarian operations such as search and rescue missions, and maritime interceptions. It said no live-fire exercises were planned.

The exercise comes at a time of rising tensions with the North following its failed rocket launch in April — seen by the U.S. and its allies as an attempted ballistic missile test.

Pyongyang said Thursday the three-nation exercise threatens to bring a “new cloud of war” to Northeast Asia.

“The North's people and military are intensely watching the trilateral military drill,” said ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun, urging the three allies to stop “reckless provocation.”

A South Korean defense ministry spokesman declined to say how many personnel were involved in the exercise in international waters south of South Korea's Jeju island, but said such drills had been held since 2008.

The U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington will join the exercise Friday before taking part in a separate drill with South Korea in the Yellow Sea from Saturday to Monday.

On land, South Korean and U.S. forces are to hold their biggest joint live-fire exercise Friday. The aim is to showcase their “watertight defense posture and war-fighting capabilities,” Seoul's defense ministry said earlier in the week.

It said 2,000 troops, F-15K and KF-16 jet fighters and light-attack planes would be among weaponry deployed.

Four U.S. Apache attack helicopters as well as tanks and rocket launchers will fire thousands of rounds during the drill at Pocheon near the border with the North.

The drill is timed to mark the 62nd anniversary on June 25 of the start of the Korean War, which sealed the peninsula's division.

The North has taken a hostile tone with the South since new leader Kim Jong Un took over in December, threatening “sacred war” to avenge perceived insults to Pyongyang's regime.

South Korean activists Thursday announced a plan to launch one million cross-border leaflets denouncing the North's ruling family.

They said the leaflets, slung under giant gas-filled balloons, would be floated across the heavily fortified frontier in five launches starting Sunday.

“While the North is busy idolizing Kim Jong Un with fabrication and hypocrisy, we will send letters unveiling the truth about Kim,” the Fighters for Free North Korea said in a statement.

They did not say where the launches would take place, for security reasons.

Seoul-based defectors and other activists often launch the propaganda leaflets, drawing an angry response from the North. In the past it has threatened to open fire on launch sites.

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Protesters shout slogans during a rally against the trilateral naval exercise by South Korea, the United States and Japan in front of the government complex in Seoul, June 21. South Korea, the United States and Japan on Thursday kicked off their joint naval exercise involving mock search and rescue operations and maritime interdiction drills near South Korea's southern resort island of Jeju. (AP)

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