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North Korean Jets Intercept U.S. Plane over Sea of Japan

By Bradley Graham

and Glenn Kessler
THE WASHINGTON POST -- Four North Korean fighter jets intercepted a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the Sea of Japan early Sunday, U.S. officials said Monday, calling the action a serious provocation.

The incident was the first hostile act by North Korean aircraft against a U.S. plane since the 1960s and came amid mounting tensions between the two countries over North Korea’s intensified pursuit of nuclear weapons.

According to a Pentagon account, an RC-135S aircraft on a “routine mission” about 150 miles off the coast of North Korea was approached by two North Korean MiG-29 fighters and two other North Korean aircraft thought to be MiG-23s. The North Korean planes, which were armed, “shadowed” the American plane for 22 minutes, starting at 10:48 a.m. local time (8:48 p.m. Saturday EST), the Pentagon account said.

The North Korean aircraft closed to within 50 to 400 feet of the U.S. plane, defense officials said, and were flying at the same altitude as the four-engine RC-135S. At least one of the North Korean planes directed its radar to identify the U.S. aircraft as a target and may have “locked on,” a step just short of shooting a missile, defense officials said. But none of the planes fired.

After the North Korean aircraft turned away, the U.S. plane aborted its mission and returned unharmed to its home base at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. Pentagon spokesmen said they had no indication that U.S. fighter jets had been scrambled to protect the reconnaissance plane.

Commenting on the North Korean action, several U.S. officials appeared stunned by its audacity. They said the Bush administration was still mulling a formal response, adding that it was likely the United States would lodge a protest.

The two countries have no formal diplomatic relations, but they traditionally exchange protests at Freedom House, a building for meetings at Panmunjeom, on the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

“It’s a very serious incident,” a senior defense official said. “Our indications are that it wasn’t an accidental event.”

According to another official, the North Korean pilots were in close radio contact with controllers on the ground. When they came alongside the American plane, the North Koreans could be seen motioning to the U.S. crew.

“They were trying to get us to fly to North Korea,” the official said. The Americans ignored the signals and stayed on course.

“It is a dangerous game to be playing” because of the chances of a misstep or miscalculation by one of the pilots, a third official said.

The United States regularly flies intelligence-gathering missions in northeast Asia to monitor North Korean military activities.