North Korea threatens to shoot down South Korean civilian airliners ‘near’ its airspace

Updated below.

North Korea is threatening South Korean civilian planes flying near its airspace amid heightened tensions on the divided peninsula.

The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland issued the threat Thursday, claiming upcoming joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises are preparations to invade the communist nation.

The statement said the North could not “guarantee the safety of South Korean civilian planes passing near our airspace.” [AP, via IHT]

Not just in their airspace, mind you, but near it as well.

I swear they have a word for this.

(1) the term “international terrorism” means activities that ….

(B) appear to be intended –

(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;

(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or

(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and

(C) occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum; [Title 18, United States Code, Section 2331]

North Korea appears to be testing a new way to terrorize its neighbors. Its international kidnapping brought public outrage and sanctions. Next, it threatened to provoke a naval battle in the Yellow Sea, but ever since South Korean President Lee Myung Bak sent a destroyer to the disputed waters and leaked plans to mount a robust defense, the North Koreans have shown little desire to provoke a fight they’d almost certainly lose, and badly. North Korea may yet test a long-range missile, in flagrant violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1695 and 1718, but with the United States and Japan now threatening — perhaps seriously — to shoot the missile down, North Korea may be reconsidering any provocation that may end in a national humiliation. The latest word is that the missile launch may not be quite so imminent after all. In any event, the missile threats have not achieved their intended purpose of extorting more money out of the Americans and the South Koreans. That may explain why North Korea may be shifting its strategy toward the intimidation of more defenseless targets.

There is a precedent for this. On Kim Il Sung’s 57th birthday, April 15, 1969, North Korean MiGs shot down an unarmed U.S. Air Force EC-121 surveillance aircraft flying 90 nautical miles from the North Korean coast, killing all 31 aboard. In 1987, North Korean agents believed to be acting on the personal orders of Kim Jong Il put a bomb aboard a South Korean airliner, killing all 115 passengers and crew. North Korea’s SA-5 anti-aircraft batteries could have a range as long as 250 miles.

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on June 26, 2008, in exchange for North Korea’s broken promises to disarm. Discuss among yourselves.

Related: I have to wince as I think that the New York Times recently told us that the North had toned down its rhetoric and really just wants to signal its desire for dialogue.

Update:

incheon-region-map.jpgAsiana and Korean Air Lines reroute their flights, adding 40 minutes to trans-Pacific flight times. The threat effectively abrogates an overflight agreement under which South Korean carriers paid Pyongyang for the right to travel through North Korean airspace:

Aircraft have been flying through North Korean airspace since the late 1990s following a groundbreaking agreement reached by IATA and ICAO under which the Pyongyang Government collects overflight fees. [Flight Global, Nicholas Ionedes]

But under the terms of the North Korean threat, simply bypassing North Korean airspace may not be enough:

It said through the state-run Korea Central News Agency last night that “security cannot be guaranteed for South Korean civil airplanes flying through the territorial air of our side and its vicinity … while the military exercises are underway.”

It’s important to remember that South Korea’s expensive new international airport at Incheon lies at the country’s northwest corner, only a few miles from North Korea. Incheon and nearby Kimpo Airport are both “near” North Korea, and both are well within surface-to-air missile range. Flights from Incheon to America fly parallel to the DMZ and then past North Korea’s east coast. Flights to Russia pass over the Yellow Sea and then parallel to North Korea’s west coast. The threats, if escalated or (God forbid) carried out, would mean a de facto blockade of most of South Korea’s air traffic.

incheon-air-routes.thumbnail.jpg

Needless to say, the South Korean government is outraged:

“The military threat against civil airplanes’ normal flights is a violation of international norms and an inhumane act that cannot be justified under any circumstances,” Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon told reporters. [AP, Kwang Tae Kim]

Predictably, the State Department called the threat “unhelpful” and pointed its soda straw back toward its failed nuclear diplomacy. Terrorism, like genocide, is simply a distraction for these people.

Also predictably, the media are paying far less attention to this story than it warrants. The AP’s Kwang-Tae Kim even wrote that North Korea “did not say what kind of danger South Korean planes would face or whether the threat meant the North would shoot down planes.” True as far as I know, but exactly what else could this mean? Is there any serious question about how the North Koreans meant for it to be understood?

Robert Koehler has more here. Maybe Robert can apply his language skills to the original North Korean statement and clarify exactly what the North Koreans threatened here.

8 Comments

  1. can someone who has any balls tell the NK publicly to start acting like a responsible member of the international community?

    why does this not get any press time? MSNBC time? CNN time?

    i hope they accidentally shoot down a chinese airliner instead.




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  2. Does anyone else find not a wee bit ironic that it is “The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland” that is issuing these bellicose threats? Sounds like something out of “1984.”




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  3. askeland everything in the DPRK sounds like 1984, right down to the pyramid of doom in downtown Pyongyang.




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  4. I’m not Robert, but I humbly offer up my language skills. Below is the exact wording from the KCNA news release from March 5:

    “…우리측 령공과 ê·¸ 주변 특히 우리의 동해상 령공주변을 통과하는 남조선민용항공기들의 항공안전을 담보할수 없게 되였다는것을 선포한다.”

    I cut and pasted only the relevant part of a snaking sentence that was stuffed with relative clauses. Below is a translation:

    “…We proclaim that we cannot guarantee the flight safety of South Korean civilian airliners passing through our air space and its environs, especially the air space perimeter of the East Sea.”




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  5. Thanks, Sonagi. I have to wonder what the hell the South Korean government was thinking when it decided to build one of the world’s largest international airports approximately five air minutes away from one of the world’s most unpredictable countries. There are many, many square miles of open land around Pyeongtaek further south that would have done just fine, and Pyeongtaek certainly has more need for development than Incheon.




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  6. Thanks, Sonagi. By the way, where did you find the NK statement?

    I have to wonder what the hell the South Korean government was thinking when it decided to build one of the world’s largest international airports approximately five air minutes away from one of the world’s most unpredictable countries. There are many, many square miles of open land around Pyeongtaek further south that would have done just fine, and Pyeongtaek certainly has more need for development than Incheon.




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  7. I went to the KCNA homepage at http://www.kcna.co.jp (ironically hosted on a Japanese server!) and checked the March 5 postings in the archives. I didn’t provide a direct link to the article because it’s not possible. There used to be a Japan-hosted homepage with links to North Korean news broadcasts, but I think that page became defunct.




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