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North Korea military tells U.S. to halt joint exercise

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea called on the U.S. military on Friday to halt a joint training exercise with South Korean forces, saying the drills could scuttle a deal to end Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.

Some South Korean government officials have said Seoul is considering a delay of the Ulchi Focus Lens exercise, which is scheduled to run from August 20-31, so as not to derail a rare summit of the two Koreas at the end of the month.

One said, however, a postponement has not been discussed.

At a meeting of colonels from the North Korean military and U.S. forces in South Korea, which was held at the Panmunjom truce village, the North warned it “cannot remain a passive onlooker to it (the drills), doing nothing,” Pyongyang’s official KCNA news agency said.

A U.S. Forces Korea spokesman said the North Korean military met officials from the U.N. Command overseeing the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, and was told the drills were defensive in nature and did not pose a threat to the North.

The U.S. military leads the U.N. Command in South Korea.

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North Korea regularly protests against the annual exercises, which it has branded a prelude to invasion and nuclear war. Pyongyang has also previously warned the drills have forced it to bolster its deterrent and it is prepared to counter-strike.

“The U.S. will be held wholly responsible for the catastrophic impact the above-said sabre rattling will have on the implementation of the February 13 agreement and the six-party talks,” KCNA quoted a statement from the North’s military as saying.

Last month, energy-starved North Korea shut its Soviet era reactor and a plant that makes arms-grade plutonium in exchange for 50,000 tonnes of heavy fuel as part of a February 13 disarmament deal struck by the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

About 10,000 U.S. troops -- 5,000 stationed in the South and 5,000 from overseas -- will take part in the exercises along with an undisclosed number of South Korean troops.

They have been holding the computer simulation and communications exercise for years without major incident.

The United States has about 30,000 troops in the South to support Seoul’s 670,000-strong military. The North has about 1.2 million troops, most of whom are deployed near the heavily armed border with the South.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is scheduled to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang on August 28-30. It will be only the second summit of the two states, which have been separated for more than half a century.

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