U.S.: N. Korea 'reckless' but diplomacy still best option
Fighters flew within 50 feet of Air Force surveillance jet
From John King
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House on Tuesday labeled North Korea's decision to have fighter jets shadow a U.S. reconnaissance plane as "reckless" but said President Bush remained convinced there could be a diplomatic solution to the standoff over North Korea's nuclear program.
"North Korea continues to engage in provocations and now reckless acts," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters.
Fleischer predicted the latest move, the weekend intercept of the U.S. Air Force jet, was an attempt to test the "tolerance" of others in the region.
"North Korea's actions only deepen the alarm that grows in these nations in the region," Fleischer said, adding its "pushing the envelope" would only bring further international isolation for Pyongyang.
He said the United States would lodge a formal protest but had not settled on a venue for doing so.
Other U.S. officials have privately said the one silver lining in the incident could be a greater willingness by China and Russia to exert more pressure on Pyongyang.
One key element of the U.S. strategy is to cast the standoff over North Korea's nuclear program as a multilateral issue, not a dispute between the United States and North Korea.
U.S. military sources said Monday that the RC-135S surveillance aircraft was in international airspace about 150 miles [240 kilometers] off the Korean peninsula when four armed North Korean MiGs approached and flew alongside for 20 minutes, at some points coming within 50 feet of the U.S. plane. The Air Force plane returned to its base in Okinawa, Japan, without further incident.
Pentagon: Intercept took coordination
Pentagon officials say the encounter was obviously well-planned and premeditated because the MiGs have a relatively short range, so for them to fly 150 miles offshore, shadow the U.S. plane and still have fuel to get back would require a coordinated plan that pre-positioned the planes to make the intercept.
"This was obviously ordered by higher-ups," one Pentagon official said.
The North Korean incident was "very deliberate," according to that official.
"If they get the U.S. to fire on them, that's 'proof' an invasion is right around the corner," he said.
Whatever the motivation, U.S. officials agree that the incident shows Pyongyang is taking "bigger and bigger risks."
The RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft is a modified version of the military C-135S cargo plane, which is based on Boeing's 707 commercial airliner. The aircraft are used to monitor areas where missiles are tested.
Last week, North Korea fired a short-range missile at sea during naval exercises, and Friday, Japanese newspapers reported that Pyongyang had tested a rocket booster for its Taepo Dong ballistic missiles at a launch site on the country's east coast in January.
In 1998, North Korea test-fired a missile that flew over Japan, raising tensions in the region.
Sunday's incident marked the first time in more than 30 years that North Korean aircraft have intercepted a U.S. plane, the sources said.
The previous interception occurred in 1969, when a North Korean fighter shot down a U.S. EC-121 reconnaissance aircraft over the Sea of Japan, killing more than 30 U.S. airmen, according to a Pentagon official.