The Bush administration Tuesday denounced North Korea's weekend intercept of a U.S. surveillance plane as "very reckless" behavior but said it remained committed to finding a diplomatic solution to the standoff with Pyongyang. U.S. diplomats are consulting with South Korea and Japan on how to protest the air incident.
With no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, the United States is consulting with its regional allies on how best to deal with the airborne intercept, described as the most serious incident of its kind since North Korea shot down a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft in 1969.
Four North Korean fighters shadowed the unarmed U.S. jet Sunday in international airspace over the sea of Japan and at one point approached within 20 meters of the Air Force KC-135 patrol aircraft.
It was the latest in a series of what officials here describe as provocative moves by Pyongyang since October, when the U.S. administration said North Korea had admitted to secretly enriching uranium in violation of several international agreements including its 1994 nuclear accord with the United States.
In December, it expelled U.N. inspectors from the nuclear complex that had been frozen under the 1994 framework and late last month restarted a reactor at the site.
Analysts see the ratcheting-up of tensions as an effort by North Korea to pressure the United States into holding direct talks on a non-aggression pact and new aid. But the Bush administration wants multilateral talks and says there should be no reward for North Korean bad behavior. Briefing reporters Tuesday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said each successive move by Pyongyang is only making its "affront to the international community" more apparent:
"Our goal is through persistent diplomacy to make sure North Korea gets the message that it's been losing out already. It loses out with every one of these steps," he said. "All the prospects and benefits it had of better relations with people in the world are harmed by every one of these steps. And at some point, North Korea has to get the message that it's not going to get anything for taking further steps."
At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush also believes the matter "can be handled diplomatically" though in a newspaper interview Monday the president said the use of military force was an option, albeit a last resort.
The administration has not publicly drawn any so-called "red-lines" on what further actions by North Korea would transform the U.S. approach.
But Monday the State Department said any moves by Pyongyang to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, or conduct a nuclear test, would be a matter of great concern to the entire international community and have "serious consequences."
U.S. defense officials said Tuesday a force of 24 long-range bombers is being sent to the Pacific island of Guam in connection with the stand-off with North Korea.
The aircraft move is understood to be a signal to Pyongyang not to under-estimate U.S. military capabilities at a time when the Pentagon is largely focussed on a possible war with Iraq.
Officials say a decision to reposition the planes was made last Friday, before the aerial encounter between the Air Force surveillance plane and the North Korean fighters.