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U. S. Bombers to deter North Korea

by Charles Aldinger and Paul Eckert,   Reuters

WASHINGTON/SEOUL (March 4) - With tension rising sharply over North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions, the United States is sending 24 B-1 and B-52 bombers to the island of Guam in the Pacific to deter any aggression by Pyongyang in case of a war in Iraq, defense officials said on Tuesday.

The U.S. officials said the deployment was a prudent measure to maintain peace in Korea but they said it was not prompted by the interception of an unarmed U.S. Air Force reconnaissance jet by North Korean fighters in international air space over the Sea of Japan on Sunday.

''These movements are not aggressive in nature,'' said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. ''Deploying these additional forces is a prudent measure to bolster our defensive posture and as a deterrent.''

Davis refused to provide any details on the weaponry being sent from the United States, but other defense officials told Reuters that two dozen swing-wing B-1 jets and heavy eight-engined B-52s were being moved immediately to Guam under orders signed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

In Sunday's incident, four North Korean fighters intercepted the RC-135 surveillance plane about 150 miles off the North Korean coast and came within 50 feet of the U.S. jet while shadowing it, the Pentagon said.

The United States denounced the intercept as reckless on Tuesday but said it still saw a diplomatic, not military solution to the stand-off with the communist state.


But Sunday's close call over the Sea of Japan underscored fears in the region that the crisis over Pyongyang's resumption of a nuclear weapons program could spiral out of control.

The risks were made clear when sources in Japan with close ties to North Korea said it was ''only a matter of time'' before the reclusive state restarted a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant that could produce weapons-grade plutonium.

The tension with North Korea is complicating Washington's difficult diplomatic task of drawing international support for possible military action against Iraq to ensure the elimination of its weapons of mass destruction.

President Bush was quoted as saying he still believed the nuclear stand-off with North Korea could be settled diplomatically but that military options were not ruled out.

Bush told reporters on Monday that if diplomatic efforts did not work, ''they'll have to work militarily.'' He said:
''(The) military option is our last choice. Options are on the table, but I believe we can deal with this diplomatically. I truly do.''

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the United States was discussing how to respond to the incident with South Korea and other allies. ''This kind of reckless behavior by North Korea will only lead to further international isolation of North Korea,'' he said.

The United States believes North Korea is ramping up pressure on Washington for direct talks that the communist state hopes would lead to renewed assistance and a nonaggression pact.


Washington says it will only hold talks with North Korea about how Pyongyang will dismantle its nuclear weapons program and wants South Korea, Japan and China to exert diplomatic pressure on North Korea.

U.S. defense officials said that U.S. reconnaissance flights in the area where the intercept took place had been temporarily suspended while Washington assessed the situation.

Sunday's encounter -- a whisker away from disaster in the air in one of the world's most militarized regions -- followed repeated assertions by North Korea's state media that RC-135s had been flying sorties in its airspace.

The North said this showed the United States was preparing for war on the peninsula.

Sources in Tokyo with close ties to Pyongyang told Reuters North Korea was poised to fire up a reprocessing plant at Yongbyon, whose main purpose is believed to be producing plutonium for nuclear bomb-making.

''The United States has drawn a 'red line', but the North will not hesitate to move beyond that,'' one of the sources said. ''It's just a matter of time (before the reprocessing unit is reactivated),'' he said.

In the South, the week-old government of President Roh Moo-hyun held a security meeting and agreed to work to contain the nuclear crisis, including sending Seoul's new foreign minister to Washington as soon as possible.

North Korea has taken steps to ratchet up pressure on the United States in the months since Washington's announcement last October that Pyongyang had admitted to pursuing a covert program to enrich uranium for weapons. In December the North expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors who had been monitoring atomic sites frozen in 1994 under a U.S. deal that eased a previous North Korean nuclear crisis.

In January, North Korea pulled out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and last week Washington said North Korea had fired up a reactor, suspected of having been used previously to produce plutonium for bombs. 

Reuters 18:50 03-04-03

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