South Korean ships will be rerouted well clear of North Korean waters because of rising tensions between the two countries, a security official said today. The move came after Pyongyang said it couldn't ensure the safety of South Korean flights passing near its territory over the Sea of Japan, blaming a US-South Korean military exercise starting next Monday it says could spark a war. Korean Air and Asiana Airlines have already begun diverting away from North Korea, with some 200 flights set to be rerouted until the 12-day exercise ends.
Thirteen container ships plying between the southern port of Busan and north-east Russia will avoid their usual route close to North Korean waters and pass near Japanese waters, the security official said on condition of anonymity. The decision was reached at a meeting of representatives from the intelligence agency, navy and maritime police in Busan, according to the official. "They've shared the view that ships navigating the route near North Korean waters might also be exposed to danger following the North's threats," he said.
"Accordingly, South Korean ships navigating this route will take detours in line with their operational manual." The unification ministry released a statement urging North Korea to withdraw military threats against civilian air flights. "A military threat to the normal operations of civil aeroplanes not only violates international rules but is also an inhumane act that can never be justified," the statement said. It added that the government is taking speedy steps to secure the safety of civilian flights. No one knows "what military conflicts will be touched off by the reckless war exercises".
The warning was the latest in a series of threats which have raised tensions in recent weeks. "Actions such as these are distinctly unhelpful, unwelcome and unnecessary," said a US State Department spokesman, Gordon Duguid, criticising statements which are "threatening to peaceful aviation."
The North every year denounces the Key Resolve-Foal Eagle military exercise as a rehearsal for invasion, while the US-led United Nations Command (UNC) says it is purely defensive. But inter-Korean tensions are high this year after the North on Jan 30 announced it was scrapping all peace accords with the South. North Korea is also preparing to fire a rocket from a base overlooking the Sea of Japan for what it calls a satellite launch. Seoul and Washington say the real purpose is to test a missile that could theoretically reach Alaska.
The North is angry at South Korea's conservative leader Lee Myung-Bak, who scrapped his predecessors' policy of offering virtually unconditional aid to Pyongyang. Analysts say it may also be testing the resolve of the Obama administration and trying to strengthen its hand in future nuclear disarmament negotiations. Kim Yong-Hyun, Dongkuk University professor, told AFP the statement could be a sign that a missile launch is possible during the exercise, or could be an attempt to attract attention from Washington.
Bake Seung-Joo, of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said the North would have to warn all flights, not just South Korean ones, if it intended a missile test soon. "This seems more like psychological warfare aimed at bolstering calls in South Korea opposing the US and the joint war drills," Baek told Yonhap news agency. The unification ministry said an average 33 flights a day, 14 of them South Korean, use a route to or from the United States or Russia which passes through North Korea's Flight Information Region.
The North receives 685 euros (548 dollars) for each jumbo jet which passes through the region. On Friday generals from the North and the UNC met at the border village of Panmunjom to discuss ways to ease tensions. A UNC spokesman could not say whether the aviation threat would be discussed. The exercise will this year involve a US aircraft carrier, 26,000 US troops and more than 30,000 South Korean soldiers.
* AFP and AP