North Korean jet crashes during apparent defection attempt

By Barbara Demick
Los Angeles Times

BEIJING – A North Korean military aircraft crashed into a cornfield in northeastern China about 100 miles from the border, the Chinese government said Wednesday. Analysts believed the flight was a failed defection attempt.

The pilot was killed in the crash Tuesday, according to China’s official New China News Agency, which also reported that the government “is in communication on the matter with the North Korean side.”

Chinese authorities released little information about the crash, which took place in Fushun prefecture, Liaoning province. But photographs reportedly taken by villagers were widely distributed on Chinese blog sites showing the wreckage with a red star in a blue circle, the insignia of the North Korean air force. North Korea’s 1st Air Division, 24th Regiment, is headquartered in Uiju, near the border city of Sinuiju, and pilots frequently train near the Yalu River, which forms the border with China.

The aircraft was identified as a Russian-made MiG fighter, most likely a MiG-21, although early reports had described it as a helicopter.

South Korean analysts said they believed the pilot was attempting to escape his impoverished homeland, possibly heading toward Russia, which was more hospitable to defectors than China. Along the way, he might have run out of fuel and attempted an emergency landing in the fields.

“This couldn’t be a training accident; the border is clearly marked,” said Kim Chul Woo of the Seoul-based Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “An attempted defection is the only plausible explanation.”

Park Syung Je, a respected military analyst in Seoul, said South Korean intelligence was still trying to determine what happened.

Park, whose Asia Strategy Institute think tank has ties with the Defense Ministry, said he believed the plane might have carried one or more passengers besides the pilot and might not have crashed accidentally.

Among the theories in circulation was that the pilot was heading toward a nearby airport in Shenyang and ran out of fuel. The plane was reported not to have sustained serious damage, making it conceivable that a passenger escaped.

Defections have increased this year amid growing food scarcities in isolated North Korea, with most people escaping by foot across the border into China. However, there have been several famous incidents, one in 1983 and another in 1996, in which North Korean air force captains flew their planes across the demilitarized zone into South Korea.