North Korea testing South with jet fighters

( Reuter )- North Korean jet fighters have sortied close South Korea's airspace at least 10 times since conservative president Lee Myung-bak took office last month, prompting Seoul to scramble its own planes in response, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported on Monday

The flights add to a list of provocative gestures from the North since Lee's government warned Pyongyang that if it wants to keep receiving aid, it should improve human rights, abide by an international nuclear deal and start returning the more than 1,000 Southerners kidnapped or held since the 1950-53 Korean War.

North Korea jets had approached skies near the Demilitarized Zone and the Northern Limit Line -- the de facto border in the Yellow Sea -- some 10 times since February 25, when the new conservative South Korean government took office, the paper said.

"The South Korean Defense Ministry is closely monitoring the moves, believing the North is intentionally creating tensions in the sea, skies and on the ground," it said, citing defense officials.

South Korea's Defence ministry declined to comment on the report.

The North stepped up tension on the peninsula last Friday by firing missiles, following that up at the weekend with a threat to launch a pre-emptive strike to "not merely plunge everything into flames, but reduce it (the South) to ashes".

It has also threatened to attack South Korean naval vessels patrolling in disputed waters, suspend inter-Korean dialogue and stop taking apart its nuclear weapons plant as called for in an international deal.

Lee has also offering huge investment to the hermit state on condition it mend its ways, a stand analysts say has infuriated, and unsettled, the largely isolated and impoverished North.

His left-of-centre predecessors in the presidential Blue House for the past 10 years have sent billions of dollars in aid to the North asking for little in return, seeing it as the price to pay for stability.

The threat to launch a pre-emptive strike came in response to comments made last week by the new chairman of the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff who said the South would hit North Korea's nuclear weapon base to disable it if the North attacks.

North Korea's army "will counter any slightest move for 'pre-emptive strikes' at their nuclear bases with more rapid and more powerful pre-emptive strikes" , the North's KCNA news agency quoted an unnamed military official as saying.

Last week Pyongyang lashed out at the Lee government by expelling South Koreans working at a joint factory park in the North that had been hailed as a model of economic cooperation.

North Korea has one of the world's largest standing armies, most of it based near the heavily mined border, just 50 km ( 30 miles) north of the South Korean capital.

It has made similar statements for years threatening pre-emptive strikes, but those have almost always been in response to joint South Korean-U.S. military drills.

The North Korean moves come as conservatives are trying to win control of the South's parliament from left-of-centre forces in an April 9 election. If conservatives win a majority, it would significantly strengthen Lee's hand during his five-year term.

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