WASHINGTON — North Korean fighter jets shadowed a U.S. reconnaissance plane over the Sea of Japan, coming as close as 50 feet at one point, the Pentagon disclosed Monday, as President Bush warned that he could turn to military action if diplomacy fails to resolve the escalating confrontation with Pyongyang.
Four MIG jets intercepted the U.S. RC-135S on Sunday morning while it was on a routine mission. One of the fighters might have beamed its radar at the American aircraft in a way that suggested it could attack, military officials said. Though no shots were fired, the North Korean planes flew dangerously close to the U.S. plane, Pentagon officials said.
The incident, which lasted 20 minutes, marked the latest in a series of provocative steps Pyongyang has taken since the United States halted an economic aid program late last year to protest the North Koreans' admission that they had continued secret work on development of a nuclear bomb.
The U.S. plane was 150 miles off the North Korean coast in international airspace at the time, officials said.
U.S. officials described the move as dangerous and said the United States would formally protest.
"This has the potential to frighten our allies even more than previous provocations," said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In an interview Monday with a group of newspapers, President Bush said he hoped to persuade China, Russia, South Korea and Japan "to join us in convincing North Korea that it is not in their nation's interest to be threatening the United States, or anybody else for that matter, with a nuclear weapon.''
Asked how successful these efforts had been, Bush said: "It's in process. If they don't work diplomatically, they'll have to work militarily. And military option is our last choice. Options are on the table, but I believe we can deal with this diplomatically. I truly do."
Bush's words seemed to mark a distinct change in tone for the administration, which has sought to play down the threat from North Korea while it has continued its buildup for a possible war with Iraq. Until now, administration officials have stressed that they had no plans to invade North Korea, though they acknowledged that the military option remained "on the table."
The North Koreans have kicked out U.N. weapons inspectors, taken steps to restart a plutonium reprocessing plant and fired a cruise missile into the Sea of Japan while Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was visiting the region to attend the inauguration of South Korea's new president, Roh Moo Hyun. Pyongyang has been trying to force the United States into bilateral talks that the Stalinist regime hopes would lead to a resumption of aid.
Military analysts and Korea experts said that this latest move suggested a dangerous recklessness and that it could backfire on Pyongyang by making it harder for Washington to agree to bilateral talks.
"This is what North Korea does: It overplays its hand and makes it virtually impossible for the United States to negotiate,'' said Daniel Goure, a former defense official who is now with the Lexington Institute, a policy center based in Arlington, Va. "They're in danger of getting themselves a war out of this."
Asked what he would tell nervous Americans about North Korea, the president replied: "First, I'll say that let us accelerate the development of an antiballistic missile system" so no nation could threaten the U.S. with a nuclear weapon.
The last such interception by North Korea took place in 1969 when a North Korean plane shot down a U.S. EC-121 surveillance plane, killing 31 people. Sunday's incident also recalled a crisis in 2001 when a Chinese fighter jet intercepted -- and collided with -- a U.S. EP-3 aircraft. The Chinese pilot was killed, and the U.S. plane was forced to land on China's Hainan island, where the crew was held for 11 days.
Under international law, aircraft from foreign countries can fly 12 miles outside a nation's coastline with its permission. Some countries have complained about U.S. intelligence-gathering flights; North Korea has in recent days been complaining bitterly about the operations, which eavesdrop on voice and data calls from a variety of sources.
At one point, one of the fighter jets appeared to use its radar to "acquire" the U.S. plane -- to identify it as a target. Although this does not involve preparing any weapons, it is taken as a hostile sign by pilots.
Moving close to another aircraft is also taken as a sign of aggressive intent.
Ordinarily, aircraft would remain at least half a mile from one another in such circumstances, for the sake of safety, said analyst Goure.
Pentagon officials at first said the fighter had "locked on" to the American plane, meaning that it had begun to gather targeting data it would need to fire a missile.
But later, officials said they were not yet clear about whether that step had been taken.