SEOUL, Mar 6 – South Korea has told North Korea to retract its "inhumane" threats against civilian air traffic, after the North said it could not guarantee security for Seoul’s flights near its territory.
"The government urges North Korea immediately to withdraw military threats against civilian air flights," the unification ministry said in a statement.
"A military threat to the normal operations of civil airplanes not only violates international rules but is also an inhumane act that can never be justified."
The government is taking speedy steps to secure the safety of civilian flights, the statement said.
South Korean flag carriers Korean Air and Asiana have already re-routed flights well clear of North Korean-controlled airspace following Thursday’s warning. Officials said the new routings would add up to one hour to journey times and cost airlines some four million won per flight (2,500 dollars).
The North said it could not ensure the safety of South Korean flights passing near its territory over the Sea of Japan, because a 12-day joint US-South Korean military exercise starting next Monday could trigger a war.
No one knows "what military conflicts will be touched off by the reckless war exercises" south of the border, it said in a statement on official media.
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 January 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.
Baek 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.