N. Korean jets intended to force spy jet down, take crew hostage

Defense official says U.S. fliers ignored MiG pilot's hand signals

March 08, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - 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 take its crew hostage, a senior defense official said yesterday.

One of the four North Korean MiGs came within 50 feet of the 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 air space 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 steps once the American plane aborted its mission and turned back to its base.

The new details of the incident, which emerged 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 air space, could have led to the plane's downing, military officials said yesterday.

"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 be 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.

Pentagon officials have acknowledged they were caught off guard by the intercept Saturday night - Sunday morning in Korea - 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 and two MiG-23 fighters.

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.

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 flights.

In addition to the shooting down of the EC-121 aircraft in 1969, four North Korean patrol boats seized the Navy intelligence ship U.S.S. 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 U.S.S. 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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