SEOUL — South Korea and the United States began annual military drills Monday despite North Korea’s threat of nuclear strikes in response to the exercises that it calls an invasion rehearsal.
Such fiery rhetoric by Pyongyang is not unusual. But the latest warning comes at a time of more tension following the defection of a senior North Korean diplomat and a US plan to place a high-tech missile defense system in South Korea.
The North’s military said in a statement Monday that it will turn Seoul and Washington into ‘‘a heap of ashes through a Korean-style preemptive nuclear strike’’ if they show any signs of aggression toward the North’s territory.
The North’s ‘‘first-strike’’ units are ready to mount retaliatory attacks on South Korean and US forces involved in the drills, according to the statement, carried by Pyongyang’s state media.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry expressed ‘‘strong’’ regret over the North’s warning, saying the drills with the United States are defensive in nature. Seoul and Washington have repeatedly said they have no intentions of invading Pyongyang.
The 12-day drills that began Monday are largely computer-simulated war games. The training involves 25,000 American troops and 50,000 South Korean soldiers, according to the US and South Korean militaries.
The drills come just days after Seoul announced that Thae Yong Ho, No. 2 at the North’s embassy in London, had recently defected to South Korea because he was disillusioned with the North’s leadership.