SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – After North Korean fighter jets intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance plane, the communist country said yesterday the threat of armed confrontation on the Korean Peninsula was growing because of what it called U.S. aggression.

North Korea did not comment on the interception of the plane. Its state-run media instead criticized annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises that began yesterday, saying they were preparation for an attack. The exercise, named Foal Eagle, ends April 2.

“This Foal Eagle exercise is escalating the danger of armed clashes on the Korean Peninsula,” said Minju Joson, a North Korean newspaper.

“If the eagle swoops down on us, a nuclear war will break out and it is clear that the whole Korean nation will not escape nuclear holocaust,” said the report, which was monitored by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

North Korea routinely condemns such exercises, but the belligerent rhetoric and the interception of the American plane come amid fears the North could make nuclear bombs within months.

U.S. military officials say the annual maneuver is “defense-oriented” and is not related to the nuclear dispute.

Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said four North Korean fighter jets had approached the U.S. plane over the Sea of Japan on Sunday, coming as close as 50 feet. One used its radar to identify the plane as a target, but there was no hostile fire, he said.

Davis said it was the first such incident since 1969, when a North Korean plane shot down a U.S. Navy EC-121 surveillance plane, killing all 31 Americans aboard.

In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush “believes that the issue of North Korea can be handled diplomatically.”

“This is a matter that we will protest and we’re talking to our allies about the best manner to do that,” Fleischer said, adding that “North Korea continues to engage in provocative, and now reckless actions. And North Korea engages in these actions as a way of saying, pay me. That will not happen.”

In a commentary, North Korea’s Minju Joson described Bush as “a political illiterate and a shameless impostor who has dull senses of the times.”

The newspaper also appealed to South Koreans, who host 37,000 U.S. soldiers on their soil, to join North Korea in resisting the United States.

The interception of the U.S. plane appeared to be part of an effort to pressure the United States into negotiations on chief North Korean aims: a nonaggression treaty and economic aid.

“The reckless move is a signal to the United States at a time when Washington pays little attention to North Korea’s repeated demand for direct dialogue,” said Lee Suk-soo, a military studies professor at the National Defense College in Seoul.

North Korea yesterday reiterated its demand for a nonaggression pact, saying through Radio Pyongyang that it was “to remove an unreasonable U.S. threat, not to gain something.” The radio was monitored by Yonhap.

Washington, which is preparing for a possible war against Iraq, says it will not be blackmailed into concessions and that North Korea’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons are a multilateral issue.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to debate the matter.

North Korea test-fired a missile into the sea off its east coast on the eve of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun’s inauguration last week.

On Feb. 20, a North Korean MiG-19 warplane crossed over the South’s western sea border, but retreated after South Korean jets flew to the area.

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