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N Korea threatens civilian planes

A South Korean soldier (near) stares at a North Korea soldier across their border (file image)
It is the latest in a series of bellicose statements issued by the North

North Korea has said it cannot ensure the safety of South Korean civilian flights passing near its airspace over the Sea of Japan (East Sea).

The comment comes ahead of a joint South Korean-US military exercise, which Pyongyang says is preparation for an invasion of the communist state.

Washington and Seoul say the annual drill is for purely defence purposes.

Tensions are high in the region amid speculation that the North is planning to test-fire a long-range missile.

In the latest of a series of bellicose statements, a North Korean committee warned that "security cannot be guaranteed for South Korean civil airplanes... in particular while the military exercises are under way".

It said no one knows what "military conflicts will be touched off by the reckless war exercises".

Launch fears

The annual US-South Korean drill, which involves tens of thousands of troops, starts on Monday and continues for 12 days.

North Korea opposes the exercise every year, but this event comes at a particularly tense time on the Korean peninsula.

Pyongyang has scrapped a series of peace agreements with Seoul over its decision to link bilateral aid to progress on denuclearisation.

The communist state also announced last month that it was preparing to launch a communications satellite. Some suspect this could be a cover for a test of the Taepodong 2 missile, which is capable of reaching as far as Alaska.

It is, analysts believe, keen to secure a position high on the agenda of the new US administration - and perhaps press for further concessions in return for abandoning its nuclear ambitions.

America's top envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, is currently visiting China, Japan and South Korea in a bid to breathe life into the stalled nuclear disarmament talks and reduce regional tensions.

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