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Rice in Seoul for N.Korea nuclear talks
Updated: 2005-03-20 09:58

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in South Korea for talks on curbing North Korea's nuclear program.

Her arrival coincided with the start of major annual US-South Korean military exercises which North Korea claims are a prelude to an invasion.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (L) shakes hands with US ambassador Christopher Hill after her arrival at Seoul airport. [AFP]
Rice, on the fifth leg of her first Asian tour since taking office, arrived at a military airbase in southern Seoul and flew by helicopter to a nearby bunker which is the command post for the exercises.

Some 17,000 US troops, 6,000 of them stationed in South Korea, are taking part in the annual exercise with an unspecified number of South Korean troops.

"Thank you for what you do every day in the front line of freedom," Rice told some 300 people including US and South Korean soldiers at the bunker.

She said that although the Cold War had ended in other parts of the world, divisions remain on the Korean peninsula.

Rice is the highest US official to have visited the top-security command post code-named Tango, according to US officials.

The aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk and its battle group arrived at the southeastern port of Busan a week before the drills with 5,200 sailors and 60 aircraft, including F-18 Super Hornets.

A Striker unit -- a rapid task force with armored vehicles -- is also taking part.

"The level of the US troops and military equipment mobilized this time is similar to ones in the preceding years," the US military command in Seoul said in a statement.

The drill focuses on a mock battle aimed at evaluating command capabilities to receive US forces from abroad, with troops mobilized for anti-commando operations and computer war games.

The United States says the exercise is "defense oriented" and designed to improve the ability of allied forces to defend South Korea against external aggression.

But North Korea has reacted nervously.

"The projected exercises are extremely dangerous nuclear war drills to mount a preemptive attack on the DPRK (North Korea)," the official Korean Central News Agency said on Friday.

"The DPRK will take all the necessary countermeasures including the increase of its nuclear arsenal to cope with the extremely hostile attempt of the US to bring down its system chosen by the Korean people themselves," it said.

The country's "nukes serve as powerful deterrent to keep the balance of forces in Northeast Asia, prevent the outbreak of a new war and preserve peace," it said.

Rice arrived from Japan for a two-day visit expected to focus on the North Korean nuclear issue. She is scheduled to meet President Roh Moo-Hyun, Unification Minister Chung Dong-Young and Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon on Sunday.

In Tokyo she said the North should promptly return to stalled negotiations on its disarmament that involve the United States, Japan, Russia, China and the two Koreas.

The talks aim to persuade the North to give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for diplomatic and economic benefits.

"North Korea should return to the six-party talks immediately if it is serious about exploring the path forward that we and the other parties have proposed," Rice said.

"This is where the North Korean government can find the respect it desires and the assistance it needs if it is willing to make a strategic choice."

North Korea last took part in the talks in June 2004. In February it declared that it has nuclear weapons and announced it was indefinitely suspending its participation in the dialogue. It demands Rice apologize for calling it an "outpost of tyranny."

Rice has refused to apologize but reiterated this week that the United States has no intention of attacking North Korea.

Some 32,500 US troops are stationed in South Korea under a mutual defense treaty aimed at deterring possible aggression from the North. US forces have been in the South since the 1950-53 Korean War.

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