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South Korea Diverts Flights After N. Korea's Warning

South Korea says North Korea must immediately withdraw an implicit threat it made this week to civilian airliners. Major airlines have adjusted their routes.

South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyoun said Friday, North Korea must immediately move to ease worries it has caused about regional air travel.

He urges the North to immediately withdraw the military threat against the South's airliners.

North Korea warned it "could not guarantee the safety" of South Korean civilian flights that pass through or near its airspace. Pyongyang blamed recent North-South tensions which it says are heightened by the impending start of annual U.S.-South Korean joint military drills scheduled for next week. The U.S. deploys about 28,000 troops here to deter a repeat of the North's 1950 invasion.

Spokeman Kim says this is the first time North Korea has directed such threatening remarks at South Korean civilian flights.

He says threatening civilian airliners' normal operations violates both international aviation regulations and humanitarian principles.

South Korea's two main airlines, Korean Air and Asiana, have rerouted flights out of North Korean airspace as a precaution. Cho Young-Chul is a spokesman for Korean Air.

He says the changed routes mainly affect flights coming from the United States and other western countries. He says the change was mandated by the government out of concern for safety.

In keeping with past aviation agreements, about 14 South Korean flights pass through airspace along North Korea's east coast every day. About 19 flights from other countries use a similar route daily. Airline officials say rerouting will add about 30 minutes to most flight times, and cost more in fuel.

The North Korean warning comes amid expectations of an imminent rocket launch by the North. Pyongyang said last week it intended to launch a "satellite" in the interest of space research. However, U.S., Japanese, and South Korean officials believe the North's real intention is to test a long-range missile.

Yang Moo-jin is a scholar at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. He says it is unlikely the North's warning is an indication it has imminent plans to launch the missile.

He says North Korea was careful to mention only South Korean civilian aircraft in its warning. If Pyongyang had warned all international flights to clear its airspace, says Yang, it would have been a much stronger indication it was planning an imminent launch.

Officers from the United Nations Command, which monitors the tense North-South Korean land border, met with their North Korean counterparts Friday in the border village of Panmunjeom. They say they told the North the airliner threat was "entirely inappropriate." They also offered reassurance that next week's U.S. - South Korean military drills are routine, and purely defensive in nature.