Seoul/Washington, March 4 (Reuters): An angry Washington hit out at North Korea for intercepting a US spy plane at the weekend, a close call over the Sea of Japan that underscores the danger that a nuclear crisis could spiral out of control.
The risks were made clear today when sources in Japan with close ties to North Korea said it was “only a matter of time” before the Communist state restarted a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant that could produce weapons-grade plutonium.
Senior US officials said Washington would formally protest about the jet fighter incident, once it found a way to do so. North Korea and the US have no diplomatic relations.
Four North Korean fighters intercepted a US air force RC-135 reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the Sea of Japan on Sunday and came within 50 feet of the big US jet while shadowing it, the Pentagon said yesterday.
The encounter — a whisker away from disaster in the air in one of the world’s most militarised regions — followed repeated assertions by North Korea’s state media that RC-135s had been flying sorties in its airspace.
The North said this showed the US was preparing for war on the peninsula. Many analysts fault the US for neglecting North Korea even as that isolated state makes continuous moves to ratchet up tension.
The US has up to now played down eye-catching North Korean incidents such as a missile launch last week just before South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun was inaugurated. The response to the near-miss suggests Washington could be changing tactics in the search for a way out of the nuclear standoff.
Analysts say Pyongyang’s goal in the four-month-old impasse is to draw Washington into talks and normalise ties to ensure survival of the impoverished state.
The spy-plane incident came as tension continued to rise on the Korean peninsula over the North’s suspected nuclear arms ambitions, and as the US builds up military forces in the Gulf in preparation for a possible invasion of Iraq.
China, an old friend of North Korea, urged calm. “We hope that under the current situation all sides keep calm and exercise restraint in order to truly safeguard peace and stability on the Korean peninsula,” foreign ministry spokesman Kong Quan said.
Sources in Tokyo with close ties to Pyongyang said North Korea was poised to make a more ominous move — firing up a reprocessing plant at Yongbyon, whose main purpose is believed to be producing plutonium for nuclear bomb-making.
“The US has drawn a ‘red line,’ but the North will not hesitate to move beyond that,” one of the sources said. “It’s just a matter of time (before the reprocessing unit is reactivated),” he said.
The fresh reminder of North Korean dangers weighed on Seoul’s stock market but there was no overt sign of tension in the South. Roh’s week-old government held a security meeting and agreed to work to contain the nuclear crisis, including sending Seoul’s new foreign minister to Washington as soon as possible.