N. Korean jets intercept U.S. plane
WASHINGTON -- The United States military has confirmed four armed North Korean jets intercepted a U.S. Air Force intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft over the Sea of Japan, but did not engage in hostile behavior.
At least two of the planes were MiG 29s while the two other fighters were thought to be MiG 23s. All of the fighters were armed, U.S. military sources said.
The Bush administration says it plans to formally protest the interception, saying it represents a "a higher level provocation than what we have been seeing".
At one stage the North Korean jets came to within less than 16 meters (50 feet) of the U.S. RC-135 -- an aircraft based on a Boeing 707 -- in an action that is believed to have been designed to "send a message" to the U.S.
The incident occurred Sunday when the U.S. plane was flying a routine reconnaissance mission about 240 kilometers (150 miles) off the coast of the Korean Peninsula.
The Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea, area where the plane was flying was well within international airspace.
North Korea has in the past repeatedly complained about U.S. surveillance flights near its borders.
The North Koreans flew alongside the U.S. craft for about 20 minutes and at one stage a MiG locked its targeting radar on the plane in what is considered an intimidatory gesture.
The U.S. Air Force plane returned to its base in Okinawa, Japan, without incident.
The United States says the incident could convince China and Russia to be more open to U.S. requests to apply pressure on Pyongyang.
"As they look at the facts of what happened here, it will be hard for Russia and China not to conclude, 'OK, now North Korea has gone too far,'" a senior administration official told CNN.
The official said the forum for lodging a formal protest had not been settled on, but that possible venues included communications with North Korean diplomats at the United Nations.
Consultations are now under way with Japan and South Korea on the best approach, this and other officials said.
"There is no question this is a higher level provocation than what we have been seeing," the senior official said.
"This is a type of situation where one miscalculation and people lose their lives, and then there is the risk of some counter response where more people can lose their lives."
U.S. officials say it was the first time a U.S. plane has been intercepted by North Korean aircraft in over 30 years.
The last previous occasion 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.
In April 2001, a U.S. EP-3E surveillance plane was forced to land on the Chinese island of Hainan after it was damaged making contact with a Chinese fighter jet.
The latest North Korean action comes as tension builds over the North's suspected nuclear missile ambitions, and looming joint war games on the Korean Peninsula between the U.S. and South Korea.
Pyongyang has accused the U.S. and Japan of using an alleged threat posed by North Korean missiles as pretense to launch an attack.
In a statement made on North Korea's state-run KCNA on Monday, Pyongyang said it had the right to develop and deploy ballistic missiles as a form of self-defense.
"The development and deployment of missiles is a sovereign right and is aimed at strengthening self-defense capabilities," the KCNA, a mouthpiece for the North Korean regime, said.
North Korea last week launched an anti-ship missile into the sea off its east coast.
KCNA said Washington and Tokyo "are trying to make an excuse for staging a pre-emptive attack."
Monday's accusation followed North Korea's starkest warning since its nuclear standoff with the U.S. began in October.
North Korea on Sunday said that if the U.S. ignited a war on the Korean Peninsula, the world "will suffer horrifying nuclear disasters." ('Disaster' warning)
Pyongyang has issued several warnings through its government-controlled media in recent weeks that the United States is preparing to launch a large-scale attack on the peninsula.
The Bush administration has said it has no plans to strike North Korea despite concerns over the restarting of the Yongbyon nuclear reprocessing facility.
-- CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr and Producer Mike Mount contributed to this report