SEOUL: A North Korean fighter plane intruded into South Korea's airspace yesterday and the communist state accused Washington of deliberately prolonging the nuclear crisis on the peninsula.
The incident, the first such air incursion by the North since 1983, followed months of North Korean brinkmanship.
It was a fresh reminder of the tensions awaiting US Secretary of State Colin Powell when he visits the region this weekend.
The South Korean Defence Ministry said the South scrambled six F-5E fighters and in two minutes the intruding MiG-19 returned across the border over the Yellow Sea.
“We firmly protest this intrusion and strongly demand the North prevent further incidents,” the ministry said, calling on Pyongyang authorities to take “responsible measures”.
The violation of the Yellow Sea border near the site of two deadly naval clashes since 1999 followed a statement from the North Korean military on Tuesday threatening to abandon the armistice which ended the 1950-53 Korean War.
The Korean People's Army said it would walk away from the 50-year-old truce if economic sanctions were imposed on Pyongyang because of the four-month-old crisis over its suspected drive to manufacture nuclear weapons.
US disagreements with Asian states over how to end the standoff are expected to dominate Powell's agenda during a four-day trip to Japan, China and South Korea starting at the weekend.
Powell travels to Tokyo tomorrow, to Beijing on Sunday and to Seoul on Monday to attend Tuesday's inauguration of South Korean President-elect Roh Moo-hyun, the State Department said.
The United States has sought without visible success to persuade regional powers, notably China, to pressure North Korea to abandon its suspected nuclear programme and favours multilateral talks to urge Pyongyang to do so.
North Korea wants a non-aggression pact with the United States and has called for bilateral talks, something other countries in the region, particularly China, are believed to favour but Washington has resisted.
South Korea and its neighbours have also voiced reluctance to impose sanctions on the North – a move the UN Security Council deferred after a brief meeting on Wednesday to allow for further diplomacy by interested governments.
Security experts at a seminar in Seoul on Wednesday said South Korea and the United States must avoid giving North Korea chances to exploit differences on the nuclear issue.
“Despite the tensions, more than 500 South Koreans travelled across the fortified frontier to North Korea on Thursday for family reunions with northern relatives they last saw 50 years ago. The meetings are a core North-South reconciliation project.
The reunions of southerners chosen by lottery and northerners screened for loyalty to their communist government are the sixth such meetings since South Korean President Kim Dae-jung met the North's leader, Kim Jong-il, in Pyongyang in June 2000.
The 550 South Koreans who will meet a similar number of North Korean kin over five days represent just a tiny fraction of the million southerners with immediate family in the North whom they have not seen or talked to since the Korean War.
The North Korea crisis began in October, when US officials said the secretive communist state had admitted to pursuing a nuclear weapons programme.
It escalated over the past two months as Pyongyang expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, said it would pull out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and threatened to resume missile testing. – Reuters