Missile launch

The drills have been held without major incident for years, but the North regularly denounces them as a preparation for invasion and nuclear war.

The UN Command said the generals discussed ways to ease tensions during the 32-minute meeting on Monday and agreed to further talks.

The UN Command declined to say whether the planned missile launch, which North Korea says is to send a communications satellite into orbit, was discussed during the talks.

South Korean officials have warned that the North risks further sanctions and international isolation if it goes ahead with the operation.

Over the weekend, Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean president, said the North's best options for its future security were through co-operation with the South and the international community, not by developing nuclear weapons and missiles.

Dialogue severed

"De-nuclearisation is a short-cut for North Korea that allows it to grow into a member of the international community," he said in a speech to mark an uprising against the 1910-1945 Japanese colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula.

Pyongyang has said US-South Korea military exercises are a pre-text for war [EPA]

His comments came after Hirofumi Nakasone, the Japanese foreign minister, urged the North to exercise "self-restraint", saying any form of launch would violate the existing UN Security Council resolution.

North Korea has severed dialogue with the South and threatened to "reduce its neighbour to ashes" in response to Lee's decision to cut what had almost been a free flow of unconditional aid, after tying the handouts to nuclear disarmament.

Since the 1950-53 Korean War, in which a US-led United Nations force fought to defend South Korea, the UN command has remained officially in place to help deter a possible North Korean invasion.

The US has 28,500 troops stationed in the country to support the South's 680,000-strong military against North Korea's 1.1 million troops.