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U.S. beefs up surveillance of Korea with another fly-by

Dec 03,2019
Another U.S. military reconnaissance plane flew across the Korean Peninsula on Monday, suggesting heightened surveillance by Washington as the clock ticks down to the year-end deadline for denuclearization negotiations set by North Korea.

According to Aircraft Spots, a Twitter account that tracks military aircraft worldwide, a U.S. Air Force RC-135W plane flew approximately 31,000 feet above South Korea’s capital metropolitan area on Monday morning, the latest in a series of reconnaissance missions conducted by U.S. spy planes in the span of a week.

On Saturday, Aircraft Spots detected that a U.S. Lockheed U-2S plane flew around 15 kilometers (9 miles) in the airspace over the Korean Peninsula. Two U.S. aircraft - a E-8C Joint STARS and EP-3E - conducted a similar mission over Korea on Friday, while a U.S. RC-135V was spotted on Thursday.

In all these cases, the U.S. planes left on their transponders, allowing their flight paths to be publicly detected. Given that transponders are usually turned off for covert missions, Washington may be deliberately trying to disclose that it is keeping a close watch on the Korean Peninsula as Pyongyang threatens to renew its military provocations if no resolution is reached in nuclear talks by the end of this year.

An enduring lull in diplomatic engagements between the two parties suggests an ever-narrowing likelihood of such a deal happening within the year, particularly in the aftermath of a breakdown in nuclear talks in Stockholm in early October.

According to a South Korean official who asked not to be named, the two sides entered into unofficial contact throughout last month in order to arrange a new round of working level talks for late November or early December, but failed to reach an agreement on resumed negotiations.

The reason, the official said, may be attributed to the United States’ silence with regards to Pyongyang’s demand that it lifts its “hostile policy” toward the North - a call repeatedly made by various high-ranking officials in the North through a string of public statements. While no clear explanation was made as to what such hostile policies entailed, the North’s top nuclear negotiator Kim Myong-gil said the policies meant those related to Pyongyang’s “security and development.”

The nominee for U.S. deputy secretary of state, Stephen Biegun, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing last month that the year-end target is an “artificial deadline set by the North Koreans” and that the United States would stick to its own schedule on the North Korean nuclear question “for as long as it takes.”

This remark from the top nuclear envoy in the negotiations with the North, who has consistently given the regime the benefit of the doubt in terms of its commitment to denuclearization, may have led Pyongyang to conclude working-level talks were no longer a viable option within the year, prompting it to fire a barrage of artillery shells from its western coast in South Hwanghae Province, followed by the testing of a super-large multiple rocket launcher last Thursday.

Choe Son-hui, North Korea’s first vice foreign minister, also told reporters in Russia on Nov. 23 that discussions related to nuclear issues was “probably no longer on the table from now on” and that the regime was no longer interested in resuming negotiations - much less a summit or high-level talks - unless the United States retracted its hostile policy.

To follow through on its earlier threats, Pyongyang is expected to conduct high-handed military actions near the end of the year that may involve reneging on its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests. Biegun himself appeared to assume as much, when he told U.S. lawmakers that he could foresee “a possibility of going back to some of the more provocative steps that preceded the start of this diplomacy to begin with,” though such a case would be a “huge mistake and a missed opportunity” for North Korea.

BY LEE CHUL-JAE, JEONG YONG-SOO AND SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]