Flying Burglar

By Conn Hallinan

While the Bush Administration is calling the recent interception of a U.S. spy plane by North Korean fighters a "provocation," it is instead the logical outcome of a deeply flawed U.S. policy toward Pyongyang, and one that threatens a potentially devastating war on the peninsula.

There is a history here that predates the confrontation between the U.S. RC-135S and the four MIGs some 150 miles off the coast of North Korea. And while North Korea is certainly an unpleasant regime--a kind of socialist monarchy--it didn't start the present crisis.

The current standoff began last October when the North Koreans admitted to U.S. State Department officials that they had a uranium enrichment program that violated the 1994 Agreed Framework. The Framework guaranteed North Korea diplomatic and economic relations, plus two light-water reactors, if it agreed to stop making plutonium.

When the North Koreans informed Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly of the program, the U.S. declared the Framework dead. Not that the Agreement was really up and running. The Republicans in Congress had already delayed building the reactors, and scuttled the diplomatic end of the treaty.

The North Koreans offered to end the nuclear program, according to journalist and Korea expert Tim Shorrock, "for a U.S. pledge not to launch a pre-emptive attack, sign a peace agreement and normalize relations." Instead, the Bush Administration turned them down cold, and proceeded to cut off fuel oil shipments.

But long before that October meeting, the White House had laid the groundwork for the present crisis.

That could, in turn, ignite a war on the peninsula, which, according to Pentagon estimates, could kill upwards of a million people.

Now put a RC-135 into the air off the North Korean coast and should anyone be surprised that there was a confrontation?

This is hardly the first time one of these aircraft has put us into a jeopardy. On April 1, 2001, a U.S. EP-3E spy plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter collided over the South China Sea, because the Chinese objected to the plane's spying on their main battle fleet at Zhanjiang.

While the Administration has portrayed the RC-135 as a craft designed for surveilling ballistic missiles, in fact the plane is an electronic warfare platform, and is particularly good at mapping radar coverage. If the U.S. were contemplating an attack on nuclear sites in North Korea, it would need to "map" that country's radar system.

Over the years, EP-3Es, RC-135s, Blackbirds, U-2s and a variety of airborne intelligence-gathering devices have spied on people we disagree with (and some we agree with). More than 150 Americans have lost their lives in this activity since the end of World War II. Satellites can do the job more safely and efficiently, and without provoking a response.

North Korea may be an undemocratic and repressive regime, but the U.S. has no right to endanger another nation's security and not expect a reaction. And plans to send out RC-135s with fighter escorts is asking for a shootout.

The solution to all this seems simple. Back in January, North Korea's ambassador to China told the press, "If the United States legally assures us of security by concluding a nonaggression treaty, the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula will be settled."

The strategy, then, would seem to be bi-lateral talks between the two parties aimed at ending the standoff, establishing diplomatic and economic relations, and ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program

And lastly, stop rattling ours at other people.