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North Korea - U.S. Plane - 2003-03-05

The United States says it will formally protest the intercept of an American spy plane by North Korean fighter jets near the Korean Peninsula early Sunday.

VOA-TV’s Chris Simkins has the latest.

U.S. officials described it as a tense, high-speed encounter over the sea of Japan. Four armed North Korean fighter jets intercepted a U.S. surveillance plane 240 kilometers off the coast of North Korea.

Defense Department officials say the encounter lasted 22 minutes and at one point one of the North Korean fighters came dangerously close, within 15 meters, to the U.S. plane. They say one of the armed North Korean jets used its fire control radar to lock on to the U.S. plane. There was no communication between the U.S. and North Korean aircraft. The spy plane returned to its base in Japan without suffering any damage.

U.S. officials described the latest incident as an "act of aggression."

Last week, North Korea complained that a U.S. reconnaissance plane had intruded into its airspace several times.

It was the first such confrontation since the North Korean’s shot down a U.S. Navy spy plane over the sea of Japan in 1969. All 31 crewmembers were killed.

Professor Lee Chung-min of Seoul’s Yonsei University says the latest incident appears to be a case of Pyongyang testing both Seoul and Washington.

"I think the impact will be quite negative. They want to de-couple Seoul and Washington as much as possible by increasing tensions here on the Peninsula. But they also want to test U.S. resolve if the U.S. decides finally go to war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq."

Last month North Korea fired missiles into the Sea of Japan and restarted it’s Youngbyon nuclear plant which is capable of producing weapons grade plutonium.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department warned North Korea against any moves to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. They say testing any nuclear devices would have serious international consequences.