Sydney Morning Herald –
North Korean fighters have undertaken long-distance flights to counter American and Russian spy planes, as talks began in Beijing on the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear arms program.
South Korea confirmed that a North Korean squadron of MiG-21s and MiG-23s was sent on navigation exercises over the Sea of Japan on Sunday and Monday.
The sortie appeared to be aimed at deterring surveillance planes spying on North Korea, and were also thought to be training to counter the tactics used by the US-led air forces over Iraq.
Such long-distance missions are rarely flown because of the cost for financially struggling North Korea, and underline Pyongyang’s growing paranoia that it will be the US’s next target.
News of the flights came as talks on the nuclear crisis between North Korea, the US and China convened at Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guest House.
The talks are the first since North Korea admitted to the US last October that it had a clandestine nuclear arms program, contravening an agreement it struck with Washington in 1994.
The multilateral talks are a breakthrough, given that North Korea until recently was demanding direct talks with the US. But the meeting between the three countries is not expected to produce any significant progress, with the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, yesterday warning that “in this first set of meetings, nothing is being put on the table”. He said the US would not be intimidated by a nuclear North Korea, “and we’re going to make that very clear in these discussions”.
The US delegation, headed by the assistant secretary of state, James Kelly, will urge North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arms program in a verifiable manner.
China’s role in bringing Pyongyang to the table has been crucial. Beijing, which is North Korea’s mentor, has been concerned the crisis could degenerate into war.
One of the reasons that the talks will only be preliminary is that they do not yet include South Korea and Japan – regional US allies that could be the target of any North Korean aggression.
The two countries want to be involved in subsequent talks, and Mr Kelly will fly to Seoul and Tokyo to brief them on the proceedings.
South Korea and Japan yesterday were hopeful of the success of the Beijing talks. South Korea’s President, Roh Moo-hyun, said the crisis should be settled peacefully “regardless of the dialogue format”.
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yasuo Fukuda, said it was important that the talks provided the momentum for a resolution.
Divisions have emerged in the Bush Administration over how to deal with North Korea. The Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, urged in a memo leaked this week that the US and China should team up to push for a change of regime in North Korea.
Mr Powell, who has pushed a diplomatic solution to the crisis, yesterday dismissed the idea. Regime change was “never the President’s agenda”, he said.