Seoul: For four days, US and South Korean troops fired artillery into the skies and dropped anti-submarine bombs on underwater targets — dramatic exercises meant to warn North Korea not to strike again.
The South Korean military said the show of force, which ended on Wednesday, succeeded in sending a pointed warning to North Korea four months after the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship.
Indeed, the shiny armada of destroyers and stealth fighter jets — led by a nuclear-powered supercarrier that at 97,000 tons is one of the world`s largest — appeared to have muted the regime.
After days of threatening to wage a powerful nuclear strike in response to the drills, North Korea issued a feeble call Wednesday for the US to drop its "hostile policy" against Pyongyang.
However, some analysts say it`s too early to claim success against the unpredictable North.
Jeung Young-tae of the government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul said the drills could provide just the excuse the regime needs to carry out another act of nuclear defiance: a nuclear test.
South Korea and US officials said no unusual military activity has been detected this week in the North, and that the drills demonstrated the allies` firepower.
"These defensive, combined training exercises are designed to send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behaviour must stop," Gen Walter L Sharp, the top US military commander in South Korea, said in a statement issued on Thursday. The two countries "are committed to enhancing our combined defensive capabilities”.
Rear Adm Kim Kyung-sik of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters on Wednesday that the US and South Korea showed off some "impressive firepower" and demonstrated the allies` solidarity.
Another round of joint exercises is due to take place in August.
However, the military parade of 20 warships, 200 aircraft and 8,000 US and South Korean soldiers may reinforce Pyongyang`s resolve to keep building its nuclear program, some analysts said.
The Korean peninsula technically remains in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
Decades later, the two Koreas are divided by one of the world`s most heavily fortified borders, and the US keeps 28,500 troops in the South.
North Korea cites the US troops and Washington`s insistence on maintaining a "nuclear umbrella" in the region as key motives behind its drive to build atomic weapons.
Pyongyang is believed to have enough weaponised plutonium to build at least a half-dozen bombs, and last year admitted to enriching uranium, which would give it a second way to make nuclear bombs.
What North Korea needs now is to keep testing its weapons, and hard-line moves like the joint military drills could provide the regime with an excuse to stage an atomic test, Jeung said.
"I think the time for a third nuclear test is getting closer," he said, noting that it is a "necessary" next step if the North wants to improve its nuclear weaponry.
North Korea has tested two atomic weapons underground, in 2006 and in 2009, and has test-fired a long-range missile built to strike the western US.
Analyst Paik Hak-soon of the Sejong Institute near Seoul said both a nuclear test and test-fire of a long-range missile could be in the cards.
"North Korea considers the joint drills in the East Sea a security threat," he said. "It wouldn`t be hard for North Korea to find an excuse to weaponise its nuclear program."
One analyst doubted that the impoverished North is preparing more provocations, with China — its main benefactor and traditional ally — likely urging North Korea to return to nuclear disarmament talks instead.
North Korea walked away from the six-nation disarmament-for-aid talks last year.