South Korea-US military drills begin

File photo: US marines participate in a US-South Korea joint landing operation drill in Pohang, about 370 km (230 miles) southeast of Seoul, 26 April 2013 The military exercises involve air, ground and naval drills

Joint military drills between South Korea and the US have begun, amid rare family reunions between North and South Korean relatives separated for decades.

The annual military exercises will last until 18 April.

They will involve Key Resolve, a computer-based simulation, and Foal Eagle, which involves air, ground and naval drills.

Pyongyang is opposed to the drills and had previously threatened to cancel the reunions if the exercises went ahead.

The military drills will involve more than 12,500 US troops.

Apparent thaw

The US and South Korea describe the annual drills as defensive in nature, but Pyongyang has described them as "exercises of war".

Last year, the exercises led to a prolonged surge in tensions, with North Korea threatening pre-emptive nuclear strikes and attacks on South Korean and US targets.

The rhetoric this year has so far been relatively mild, but the drills are scheduled to last until April, and many here see them as the toughest test yet of whether ties between the two Koreas are warming, the BBC's Lucy Williamson in Seoul reports.

Speaking on Monday, South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said: "As of now, there are no unusual movements from North Korea. We will only take action against North Korea if it makes provocations or denunciations".

Also on Monday, around 360 South Koreans met their North Korean relatives for the first time since the 1950-1953 Korean War, at a family reunion event in North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort.

North Korean Kim Tae Un (C), 78, and her South Korean sisters Kim Sa-bun (L) and Kim Young-sun cry as they hug each other during their family reunion at the Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea, 23 February 2014 Hundreds of North and South Korean relatives met for the first time in decades at the family reunion events

They were the second set of relatives chosen to attend the reunions, which come amid an apparent thaw in inter-Korean ties.

Many people were separated from their relatives by the division of the Korean peninsula after the Korean War.

Will there be a North Korean backlash?

Family reunions have now fortunately moved forward. Yet so too have joint exercises.

As a result, it is possible that when US military assets finally materialise in the region for Foal Eagle, North Korea could point to the overt rebuke of its goodwill, claim that it has no choice but to develop robust self-defences, and then subsequently revert to belligerence.

Pyongyang has been accused of using the family reunions, which are highly emotional events, as a bargaining chip.

North Korea has in the past cancelled the reunions after the South took actions it opposed - most recently in September.

In 2010, the programme was suspended after the North's shelling of a South Korean border island.

Meanwhile, South Korea also offered to assist the North with tackling an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

North Korean state media said that thousands of pigs had been affected by the disease.

South Korea, which has also been hit by outbreaks before, has offered to send aid, including medical goods and vaccines, officials said.

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