The United States is criticizing as "distinctly unhelpful" and "unwelcome" an implicit North Korean threat Thursday to South Korean civil aviation. The rhetoric from Pyongyang came as the new U.S. envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, met with Japanese officials in his first trip to the region.
North Korea has routinely condemned the annual joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise, the 2009 version of which begins next week along South Korea's east coast.
But Pyongyang is notably stepping up the rhetoric this year, calling the impending maneuvers a prelude to invasion and nuclear war, and implicitly threatening civil aviation - saying the safety of South Korean planes over the Sea of Japan cannot be guaranteed.
The comments coincided with the first visit to the region by Stephen Bosworth, a veteran retired U.S. diplomat named this month to the Obama administration's special envoy for North Korea and the Chinese-led six-party talks on Pyongyang's nuclear program.
At a news briefing, State Deputy Spokesman Gordon Duguid said it is unclear whether the new threats are related to Bosworth's presence in the area, but said they are clearly not conductive to advancing the Korean disarmament process.
"...Distinctly unhelpful, they are distinctly unhelpful," he said. "The North Koreans should be working on their commitments to the six-parties' talks and fulfilling their agreements under the six-party talks, rather than making statements that are threatening to peaceful aviation."
Duguid also termed the latest North Korean comments unwelcome and unnecessary, and noted that threatening language has been coming from Pyongyang for several weeks.
That has included a threat to launch a long-range ballistic missile or satellite launch vehicle, which the United States says would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution approved after North Korea's 2006 nuclear test.
Ambassador Bosworth, who met senior Japanese officials Thursday in Tokyo, has told reporters he plans to directly engage North Korea in his new capacity, though Duguid said there are no current plans for him to see North Korean officials on the trip.
Bosworth began the mission in China and is to go on to South Korea to discuss prospects for restarting the stalled six-party negotiations. He is to meet Russian officials in Seoul in addition to South Korean diplomats.
A senior State Department official Thursday cautioned against expectations of a breakthrough on the Bosworth trip, which he described as mainly an orientation visit with other parties to the nuclear talks.
Bosworth is a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, the Philippines and Tunisia and has taken leave from an academic post to pursue the new assignment.