TOKSOK-RI, South Korea — Hunkered in the belly of the USS Juneau off the coast of South Korea, hundreds of U.S. Marines spent the night glued to a mess hall television watching the war in Iraq — and feeling a little left out.
When the sun rose today, they stormed a nearby beach and sloshed through muddy rice fields as part of massive military exercises. North Korea warns that the U.S.-led maneuvers are pushing the Korean Peninsula to the "brink of nuclear war," but for soldiers like Eric Ettinger, they are little more than mundane drills.
"The mood was a little bummed out, because we're not there," the Pennsylvania native said about wanting to pitch into the fight for Iraq.
Today's practice beach assault comes amid mounting tension over North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons program. While it highlights how U.S. military has other hot spots to watch outside the Middle East, it also serves as reminder of what could happen if diplomacy fails on the Korean Peninsula as it did in Iraq.
Amid staged explosions, sorties of U.S. and South Korean fighter jets screamed over the horizon and helicopters came thumping in from the sea. Waves of amphibious assault vehicles, enshrouded in a thick white smoke screen, splashed ashore.
After jumping out of the landing craft, the troops scrambled up an embankment to take positions behind pine trees before spreading out across the nearby rice fields. Sitting just off shore were warships, including the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.
North Korea's official KCNA news agency said the United States was conducting the war games to test its capabilities of fighting two wars simultaneously. "This clearly proves that the U.S. win-win strategy, a key link in the whole chain of its strategy to dominate the world by holding an upper hand in strength, is being put into practice on the Korean Peninsula," KCNA said.
Tensions have run high in the region since October, when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted having a secret nuclear program. The United States, which bases 37,000 troops in South Korea, says the exercises are unrelated to the nuclear dispute and are purely defensive.
"This is not about North Korea. This is about our commitment to deterrence," said Lt. Col. Mike Caldwell, a spokesman for the U.S. Forces in Korea.
Washington has deployed an intimidating array of weaponry for the monthlong maneuvers, including the carrier Vinson and a wing of radar-evading stealth fighters, which are here for the first time in a decade.
The United States regularly conducts military exercises with South Korea. One of the annual exercises — called "Reception, Staging, Onward Movement and Integration" — ends March 26. A second — called "Foal Eagle" — started March 4 and runs until April 2.
Before Friday morning's drills began, a lone demonstrator ran onto the beach near this seashore village in southeastern South Korea to unfurl a protest flag. He was quickly tackled by police and hauled away.
On Thursday, South Korea put its military on heightened alert to guard against possible moves by the North to stoke tensions while the world is distracted by the Iraq war. President Bush has described North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and Iran.
South Korean Defense Minister Cho Young-kil said North Korea was conducting air raid drills across the country to heighten vigilance. But he said he saw "little chance of high-intensity military provocations" from the communist state.