North Korean warplane crash in Liaoning embarrasses Beijing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 August, 2010, 12:00am

A North Korean fighter jet that ploughed into a makeshift house just 27 kilometres from Shenyang , the capital of northeast China's Liaoning province, on Tuesday has sparked fevered speculation and is an embarrassment for Beijing, military and diplomatic analysts said.

They said the incident would embarrass the People's Liberation Army if its air force had failed to detect the intrusion of such an unsophisticated warplane and allowed it to fly so close to Shenyang, especially at a time when the United States and South Korea are planning further naval drills in the nearby Yellow Sea.

Xinhua, citing Chinese authorities, said yesterday that the aircraft that crashed into farmland near Shenyang had probably come from North Korea.

'The aircraft crashed into a makeshift, civilian house, leaving no Chinese dead or injured,' Xinhua quoted a source as saying. 'The pilot died on the spot.'

Xinhua said Beijing was communicating with Pyongyang over the issue.

The jet crashed at Lagu town in Fushun county, just 200-odd kilometres from a North Korean airbase in the border city of Sinuiju, it said.

Photographs posted on the internet showed the wreckage of the aircraft bearing North Korean military insignia. As the plane was relatively complete, military experts said the fighter jet may have crashed while flying at low altitude to avoid radar detection.

'It definitely was not shot down. If it was brought down by PLA anti-aircraft artillery it would have been in many pieces,' Ni Lexiong , a Shanghai-based military expert, said.

He said unidentified planes intruding into Chinese airspace would normally be escorted to a nearby airport by PLA aircraft.

The crash site is just 27 kilometres from Shenyang's Taoxian International Airport.

Antony Wong Dong, president of the Macau-based International Military Association, said an intruding North Korean plane might be ordered to land at a nearby civil airport.

'Maybe the crash was just an accident because the fighter jet ran out of fuel, or had other technical problems,' he said.

The Seoul-based Yonhap News Agency said the aircraft appeared to be a MiG-15 fighter jet - a 60-year-old design from the former Soviet Union - but witnesses said it was a MiG-21, production of which began in 1958.

Yonhap quoted another Chinese source as saying that the aircraft might have lost its way while attempting to fly to Russia.

'The number of North Korean soldiers defecting from the impoverished, reclusive state has increased in recent months as food shortages deepen,' Yonhap said.

Wong said the crash would also shame Pyongyang.

'I don't think Beijing would openly embarrass its ally, but it will add to the PLA's dissatisfaction over China's friendly policy towards North Korea,' he said.

'For many years, a great number of senior PLA officers have been unhappy with Pyongyang's insistence on its secret nuclear weapons development, which Kim Jong-il aims to use to increase his bargaining chips on the diplomatic table.'

However, Gao Haikuan, an expert on northeast Asian security affairs, said the mutual embarrassment would not harm bilateral ties.

'It's just a small accident,' Gao said. 'I think both Beijing and Pyongyang realise they need each other amid the rising tension in the Yellow Sea.'

Mysterious motives

Was the plane ordered to land but ran out of fuel?

That suspicion has been voiced since the crash site is close to Taoxian International Airport, a distance of only: 27km