North Korean rocket misses airliner

SEOUL, South Korea — A China Southern Airlines plane carrying 220 passengers passed through the trajectory of a rocket launched seven minutes earlier by North Korea, a South Korean official said Wednesday.

China Southern flight CZ628, operating as a code-share with Japan Airlines Co. as flight JL5021, was headed to Shenyang, China, from Narita airport in Japan when North Korea fired the missile at 4:17 p.m. Tuesday, said South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok. The jet was over international water at an altitude of 32,800 feet at 4:24 p.m. when it crossed the trajectory of the missile, which reached a height of 12.4 miles, Kim said.

“The rocket could have hit the plane on its way down,” Kim said. “North Korea had not given any warning. It was an unexpected and immoral act that goes against international norms.” The ministry has notified China through “certain channels” of the closeness of the trajectory, he said.

Flight JL5021, operated by China Southern, departed at 2:16 pm from Narita Tuesday, according to JAL’s website.

North Korea fired a total of seven short-range missiles Tuesday into the sea, including four that South Korea’s Defense Ministry estimated flew more than 93 miles, far enough to reach its capital Seoul.

The rockets hit their targeted areas off the eastern coast “precisely,” the official Korean Central News Agency said Tuesday, citing a North Korean military spokesman it didn’t identify. North Korea has the right to launch rockets in self-defense and will not abandon its nuclear deterrent for the sake of dialogue, the spokesman said in the report.

“There are no signs a nuclear test is imminent in the North,” South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday. “North Korea has completed basic preparations for a long-range missile launch.”

All North Korean troops are on “special alert” in response to U.S.-South Korean drills that began Feb. 24, senior South Korea Defense Ministry official Kim Kwang-woo said at the same hearing. The North also continues construction at its long-range missile launch site, he said.

South Korea diverted its commercial airplanes to avoid collisions before the North launched long-range rockets in 2012. The short-range launches could not be predicted, the defense minister said.

“Our military is closely monitoring for additional launches,” Kim said. “It’s difficult to predict North Korea’s actions.”

North Korea fired its rockets from mobile launchers and four of them are believed to be capable of flying as far as 180 kilometers, he said.

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