The United States says it is restarting reconnaissance flights off the North Korean coast. The flights are the first since the second of March, when four North Korea fighter jets intercepted a U.S. Air Force spy plane over the Sea of Japan. The announcement comes amid Japanese media reports that the North could soon test fire a ballistic missile.
U.S. officials say that intelligence-gathering flights will resume near North Korea, but have not said when. The military says that, as before, the flights will be in international air space.
"We are continuing to conduct surveillance missions in international air space and waters in variety of locations around the world to include the Sea of Japan," says Master Sergeant Leah Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. military in Japan. "These missions are innocent and they are non-threatening and they have been conducted in the Sea of Japan for many years and they will continue."
The flights were suspended earlier this month after four North Korean fighters intercepted an unarmed U.S. reconnaissance flight in international air space over the Sea of Japan. The North's MiGs appeared with no warning, and at least one came within 50 feet of the U.S. jet, which was able to return safely to its base in southern Japan.
The United States has officially protested the incident. The New York Times has characterized it as an attempt to force the U.S. jet to land in North Korea and take its crew hostage.
The resumption of surveillance flights comes as tensions rise over its nuclear ambitions. U.S. officials said six months ago that the North admitted having a secret nuclear weapons program violating several international accords. The North denies having made the statement, but since then it has undertaken a string of attention-getting acts. It has restarted banned nuclear facilities, withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and tested two short-range missiles.
On Wednesday, a leading U.S. diplomat told members of the Senate that North Korea could be only months away from having enough material to make nuclear weapons.
Two major Japanese newspapers warned Thursday that North Korea may soon test a medium-range ballistic missile. The Yomiuri, Japan's largest paper, reports the U.S. military told Japan that the launch of a Rodong could take place soon because North Korean army vehicles were seen gathering near several launch sites in the isolated Stalinist state.
Yasuo Fukuda, a spokesman for the Japanese government, says there is no confirmation the North is preparing to test a ballistic missile. However, he says, the government is paying careful attention to the North's missile program and trying to gather more facts.
The Rodong missile has a range of about 1,300 kilometers and was last tested in 1993. The North tested a longer-range missile in 1998, which flew over Japanese territory and alarmed nations across the region, who had underestimated North Korea's missile capabilities.