New york Times Report:
WASHINGTON, March 7 ó The North Korean fighter jets that intercepted an unarmed American spy plane over the Sea of Japan last weekend were trying to
force the aircraft to land in North Korea and seize its crew, a senior defense official said today.
One of the four North Korean MIG's came within 50 feet of the American plane, an Air Force RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft, and the pilot made
internationally recognized hand signals to the American flight crew to follow him, presumably back to his home base, the official said.
The American crew members ignored the gesture commands, aborted the surveillance mission in international airspace about 150 miles off the North
Korean coast, and returned safely to their home base at Kadena Air Base in Japan.
The official offered no explanation as to why the North Korean fighters did not take further action once the American plane aborted its mission and
turned back toward its base.
The new details of the incident emerged during a day in which North Korea declared a three-day maritime exclusion zone in the Sea of Japan, signaling
its intention to test fire a missile. Pentagon officials said it was virtually the same area in which North Korea tested an anti-ship missile on
Details about the intercept, which came to light after military officials interviewed the flight crew, suggest that the more than 15 Americans aboard
faced greater peril than was previously known. Ignoring a fighter pilot's order to land, even in international airspace, could have led to the
plane's downing, military officials said today.
"Clearly, it appears their intention was to divert the aircraft to North Korea, and take it hostage," the official said.
The disclosure of what appeared to have been a plan to force down the aircraft came during a broad-ranging interview about the North Korean nuclear
crisis with the senior Defense Department official.
In April 2001, a United States Navy surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter that was closely tailing it. The plane, an American EP-3E, was
forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan island in China. The 24-member crew was detained for 11 days.
Pentagon officials have acknowledged they were caught off guard by the intercept on Saturday night ó Sunday morning in Korea ó and did not scramble
American fighters during the 22 minutes the North Korean jets tailed the four-engine Air Force reconnaissance plane. North Korea's air force is so
strapped for fuel and spare parts, its pilots fly only about 13 hours of training missions a year, and rarely stray from their home skies.
Despite the growing tensions over North Korea's push to build a nuclear arsenal, there has not been a serious aerial confrontation between the two
countries since North Korea shot down an unarmed American EC-121 reconnaissance plane in 1969, killing 31 American airmen.
For these reasons, Pentagon officials say there is little doubt that the North Korean mission was a well-planned operation that used its top pilots
flying two MIG-29's and two MIG-23's.
Pentagon officials acknowledged that there was no way to be certain of the North Korean plan to divert the American plane to the North. There were no
radio communications between the aircraft.
They added that the North Korean jets had not "locked on" to the American surveillance plane with their firing radar, as initially suspected ó
apparently because they were carrying heat-seeking missiles that did not require "fire-control radar" to guide the weapons to their targets.
Nonetheless, officials at the Pentagon and the United States Pacific Command in Hawaii are working out details of plans to protect the reconnaissance
flights when they resume shortly. Officials said they were balancing the need to ensure the crew's safety and not be intimidated by the North
Koreans, while trying to avoid steps that could unintentionally set off hostilities.
Military officials said that American fighters would not closely escort unarmed reconnaissance planes, but could fly patrols near by. One senior
military official said that the Navy might dispatch one of its Aegis-class cruisers to the Sea of Japan to provide early warning of any North Korean
The Cobra Ball reconnaissance planes are highly specialized military versions of a Boeing 707 that monitor ballistic-missile launchings and provide
early warning of any firings.
In addition to the shooting down of the EC-121 aircraft in 1969, four North Korean patrol boats seized the Navy intelligence ship Pueblo in January
1968. In response, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent two squadrons of fighter planes to South Korea, called up 15,000 Air Force and Navy reservists and
ordered the aircraft carrier Enterprise to a position about 200 miles off the North Korean coast. The Pueblo's 82 crew members were released in
December of that year, but the North Koreans kept the ship.
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