North Korean interception of U.S. plane raises tension

Wednesday, March 5, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea -- After North Korean fighter jets intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance plane, the communist country said Tuesday the threat of armed confrontation on the Korean Peninsula was growing because of what it called U.S. aggression.

North Korea did not comment on the interception of the plane. Its state-run media instead criticized annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises that began Tuesday, saying they were preparation for an attack. The exercise, named Foal Eagle, ends April 2.

"This Foal Eagle exercise is escalating the danger of armed clashes on the Korean Peninsula," said Minju Joson, a North Korean newspaper.

"If the eagle swoops down on us, a nuclear war will break out and it is clear that the whole Korean nation will not escape nuclear holocaust," said the report, which was monitored by South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

North Korea routinely condemns such exercises, but the belligerent rhetoric and the interception of the American plane come amid fears the North could make nuclear bombs within months.

U.S. military officials say the annual maneuver is "defense-oriented" and is not related to the nuclear dispute.

First incident since 1969

Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said four North Korean fighter jets had approached the U.S. plane over the Sea of Japan on Sunday, coming as close as 50 feet. One used its radar to identify the plane as a target, but there was no hostile fire, he said.

Davis said it was the first such incident since 1969, when a North Korean plane shot down a U.S. Navy EC-121 surveillance plane, killing all 31 Americans aboard.

In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush "believes that the issue of North Korea can be handled diplomatically."

"This is a matter that we will protest and we're talking to our allies about best manner to do that," Fleischer said, adding that "North Korea continues to engage in provocative, and now reckless actions. And North Korea engages in these actions as a way of saying, pay me. That will not happen."

In a commentary, North Korea's Minju Joson described Bush as "a political illiterate and a shameless impostor who has dull senses of the times."

The newspaper also appealed to South Koreans, who host 37,000 U.S. soldiers on their soil, to join North Korea in resisting the United States.

The interception of the U.S. plane appeared to be part of an effort to pressure the United States into negotiations on chief North Korean aims: a nonaggression treaty and economic aid.

"The reckless move is a signal to the United States at a time when Washington pays little attention to North Korea's repeated demand for direct dialogue," said Lee Suk-soo, a military studies professor at the National Defense College in Seoul.

North Korea on Tuesday reiterated its demand for a nonaggression pact, saying through Radio Pyongyang that it was "to remove an unreasonable U.S. threat, not to gain something." The radio was monitored by Yonhap.

Washington, which is preparing for a possible war against Iraq, says it will not be blackmailed into concessions and that North Korea's efforts to develop nuclear weapons are a multilateral issue. The U.N. Security Council is expected to debate the matter.

Last week, U.S. officials said North Korea had restarted a nuclear reactor that is at the center of a suspected weapons program. The reactor could yield enough plutonium for an atomic bomb in about a year, experts say.

The United States believes the North already has one or two nuclear bombs.

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