South Korean and US troops will begin their expanded annual military drills next week in response to North Korea’s evolving nuclear threats, the two countries said.

It is a move that will likely enrage North Korea because it views its rivals’ joint training as an invasion rehearsal.

In recent months, North Korea has inflamed animosities on the Korean Peninsula with fiery rhetoric and continued missile tests.

While it is unlikely for North Korea to launch full-blown attacks against South Korea and the US, observers say the North could still stage limited provocations along the tense border with South Korea.

South Korea Koreas Tensions
Protesters stage a rally to oppose planned joint military exercises between the US and South Korea, near the US Embassy in Seoul (Ahn Young-joon/ AP)

On Wednesday, the South Korea and US militaries jointly announced that the allies will conduct Freedom Shield exercise, a computer-simulated command post training, and a variety of separate field training, from March 4-14.

Col Lee Sung-Jun, a spokesperson for South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff, told reporters that the allies’ drills are designed to bolster their joint capabilities to prevent North Korea from using its nuclear weapons.

He said the allies are to carry out 48 field exercises this spring, twice the number conducted last year, and that this year’s drills would involve air assault, live-firing and bombing training.

“Our military is ready to punish North Korea immediately, strongly and to the end in the event of its provocation, and we’ll further strengthen our firm readiness through the upcoming drills,” Mr Lee said.

Col Isaac L Taylor, a spokesperson for the US military, said the allies’ exercises have been defensive in nature and that there is solid evidence that “a high readiness rate” helps ensure deterrence.

South Korea Koreas Tensions
US soldiers participate in a joint military drill with South Korea in Paju, South Korea (Lee Jin-man/ AP)

North Korea did not immediately respond to the drills’ announcement. North Korea has reacted to previous major South Korea-US military drills with its own missile tests.

North Korea has sharply intensified its weapons testing activities since 2022 in part of its efforts to expand its nuclear and missile arsenals. This year, the North already conducted six rounds of missile tests — five of them reportedly involving cruise missiles — and other weapons launches.

Mr Lee, the South Korean military spokesperson, said that the upcoming South Korea-US drills would involve training to detect and shoot down North Korean cruise missiles.

Analysts say North Korea would likely use cruise missiles to attack incoming US warships in the event of a conflict, as well as US military installations in Japan. The North’s weapons tests in 2022 and 2023 largely focused on ballistic weapons systems.

Experts say North Korea believes a bigger weapons arsenal would allow it to pressure the US and South Korea more effectively to make concessions like sanctions relief when diplomacy resumes.

They expect North Korea to ramp up its testing activities and other provocations this year as both the US and South Korea head into major elections.

South Korea and the US have responded to the North’s testing spree with expansions of their bilateral military drills and trilateral exercises involving Japan.

US and South Korean officials have repeatedly warned that any nuclear attack by North Korea against them would spell the end of the North’s government led by Kim Jong Un.

In a telephone call earlier on Wednesday, South Korean defence minister Shin Wonsik and US defence secretary Lloyd Austin condemned North Korea’s missile tests and reaffirmed the need to maintain an overwhelming joint defense posture, according to the South Korean defence ministry.

The Pentagon said Mr Austin reaffirmed the ironclad US extended deterrence commitment to the defence of South Korea.