South Korean President Moon Jae-in salutes the national flag during a cabinet meeting at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, August 21, 2017. Kim Ju-hyoung/Yonhap via REUTERS

South Korean and US forces began annual military exercises on Monday amid tensions over North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in saying the drills were purely defensive.

“There is no intent at all to heighten military tension on the Korean peninsula as these drills are held annually and are of a defensive nature,” Moon told Cabinet ministers, while warning Pyongyang not to engage in provocations.

North Korea views such exercises as preparations for invasion and has fired missiles and taken other actions to coincide with the military drills in the past. The North’s media has said calling them defensive is a  “deceptive mask.”

Separately, a news report said trade sanctions on the North aimed at  blocking its missile program are failing.

The military exercises will run through Aug. 31 and involve computer simulations as well as 17,500 US troops, down from 25,000 last year, according to the Pentagon.

U.S. Army M109A6 Paladin self-propelled howitzers in a military exercise near the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea, August 10, 2017. Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

Other South Korean allies are also joining this year, with troops from Australia, Britain, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, the Netherlands, and New Zealand taking part.

The United States has about 28,000 troops in South Korea. North and South Korea are technically still at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.

Sanctions undermined

North Korea has said it’s developing nuclear weapons and missiles capable of reaching the US mainland, generating a war of words with Washington and additional trade sanctions on Pyongyang by the UN.

However, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported on Monday that a confidential United Nations report found North Korea had continued to evade UN sanctions by “deliberately using indirect channels” and had generated $270 million from banned exports since February.

The “lax enforcement” of existing sanctions and Pyongyang’s “evolving evasion techniques” were undermining the United Nation’s goal of getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Kyodo quoted the report as saying.

The U.N. Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea on Aug. 5 that could slash the North’s $3 billion annual export revenue by a third. The sanctions were imposed after North Korea tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July.

China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, and Russia both supported the sanctions on Pyongyang, but have also urged the United States and South Korea to scrap the military drills.

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