Tag: Pyongyang

Is North Korea safe to overfly again?

Update: FSB removed North Korea warnings on May 14, 2018

A friend of mine is a grumpy flight dispatcher at a Large Canadian Airline. We have a standing agreement that when North Korea “opens up”, we are going to open the first Irish Pub in Pyongyang.

We made the agreement during an inspection tour of North Korean missile launch sites in 2016, though we didn’t know that’s what we were doing at the time. We were there to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the national airline, Air Koryo, and get a glimpse of aviation in North Korea.

Aviation is different here.

When we asked if we could have a look at airside operations at Pyongyang airport, the officials gladly drove us out onto the ramp, and then the runway, dropping us off at the edge for an hour or so of getting as close as we liked to the steady stream of Soviet era Tupolev and Ilyushin landing traffic. Not a yellow jacket in sight.

Yes, aviation is different here. When you first arrive in Pyongyang, the flight attendants dutifully come through the cabin before landing and lower the window shades, so that you land in darkness. They don’t want you to see their military aircraft; they don’t want you to see much of anything at all.

During our eight days there, we flew to 6 or 7 different North Korean airports, trekking out to Pyongyang International each morning to jump on whatever Tu-134 or Il-62 was designated for us that day. We got used to being filmed a lot of the time by the secret service, especially on board the aircraft.

But we had fun, too. For the evening that was the anniversary party, we were taken to a Bond-esque giant villa in the countryside, owned by the airline, for a 13-course dinner, topped off with a performance by the flight attendants that we saw each day on our domestic flights.

One of our destinations was Wonsan. The airport there is of the ‘giant international’ variety, a gleaming construct of huge terminals, pristine taxiways and runways, perfectly marked to ICAO standard, completed in 2015 at a cost of $130m. We were the first passenger flight to land at the new airport, as no international airlines were operating here yet. Unsurprisingly, there are still no international airlines operating here.

Just out of sight, to the right of the threshold that we landed on, is also the Wonsan missile launch facility. From here, a Hwasong-10 ICBM was launched in the direction of Japan, on June 22nd 2016.

The North Korean military holds drills here, so sometimes the beach beside the airport looks like this:

And so, to the question. What do all the recent developments mean? Is North Korea “opening up”? Is it going to be safe to operate through the Pyongyang FIR?

A quick history of developments in the last few years:

  • Until around 2014, North Korea notified ICAO of all missile launches, so that aircraft could avoid the launch and splashdown areas.
  • In 2015, they gradually stopped doing this, reaching a point where there could be no confidence in an alert being issued to airlines by North Korea.
  • In 2016, airlines and aircraft operators started avoiding the Pyongyang FIR entirely, by the end of 2016 almost nobody was entering the airspace.
  • In 2017, more and more of these missiles came down in the Sea of Japan, increasingly closer to the Japanese landmass. FSB researched the locations and produced a map of the risk area, together with the article: “Here’s why North Korean missiles are now a real threat to Civil Aviation

In the last few months, there has been incredible development away from the stalemate that has marked the relationship between North Korea and international aviation. Political change precedes aviation change, and that political change is very promising. Given that the primary risk to aircraft operators stems from missile launches, it already appears very unlikely that there will be any further launches, especially unannounced ones.

NHK world reports that ICAO is in North Korea this week, and that one of the main questions will be “to ask North Korea how it will ensure the safety of civilian aviation in international air space.”

The likely answer is rather simple. “We won’t be firing any more missiles, and if we do, we’ll notify”. That answer would be sufficient to remove the warnings about the Pyongyang FIR currently in force, together with the Fukuoka FIR warnings for the Sea of Japan.

So, it seems very likely that in the coming months, we will start to see international traffic start to use the Pyongyang FIR again, and may even see some new airways being established. In the interim, and before we issue specific guidance, we’ll wait to see the results of the talks between ICAO and North Korea this week.

 

Further reading:

 

 

 

Cathay crew witness missile re-entry from North Korea

Crew onboard a Cathay Pacific flight witnessed the re-entry of North Korea’s latest missile near their position late last week. The CX893 service from San Francisco to Hong Kong on Nov 29 was over Japan at the time when North Korea launched its missile.

The crew reported: “Be advised, we witnessed the DPRK missile blow up and fall apart near our current location.”

Here’s Cathay Pacific’s full statement:

“On 29 November, the flight crew of CX893 reported a sighting of what is suspected to be the re-entry of the recent DPRK test missile. Though the flight was far from the event location, the crew advised Japan ATC according to procedures. Operation remained normal and was not affected. We have been in contact with relevant authorities and industry bodies as well as with other carriers. At the moment, no one is changing any routes or operating parameters. We remain alert and review the situation as it evolves."

North Korea’s missiles are larger, and can fly further, than the other missiles we’ve previously seen. Over the past year, most of these missiles land in the Sea of Japan, well inside the Fukuoka Flight Information Region (Japanese airspace). But as we see with this latest test, there is clearly a danger of some of these missiles not re-entering the atmosphere intact – meaning that a debris field of missile fragments passes through the airspace, not just one complete missile. If you haven’t done so already, make sure you read this: our article on why North Korean missiles are now a real threat to Civil Aviation.

This latest test is also significant because of its unprecedented altitude – 4500km (2800 miles). Experts seem to agree that if it had been fired on a standard trajectory, the missile would have been capable of traveling around 13000km (8100 miles), meaning it could have struck anywhere in the mainland US.

If you’re operating in the region, we recommend avoiding the ZKKP/Pyongyang FIR entirely and avoiding the affected areas over the Sea of Japan. For more info, check out Safeairspace.

North Korea overflight getting riskier

Update: FSB removed North Korea warnings on May 14, 2018

The annual posturing between the DPRK (North Korea), and the US/South Korea, follows a fairly regular pattern each year. The cycle involves escalating threats (by both sides), a cooling off process, a long period of nothing, and then a resumption of threats. History tells us that there is nothing to fear, because this is always the way it works on this peninsula, but then a slightly less micro view also tells us that we don’t always make the correct risk assessment.

Prior to MH17 (B777 shootdown, Ukraine), our view of missiles in the commercial aviation community was a little casual.  Post-incident, the rule of ‘overflights are safe’ as a standing principle was removed,  and suddenly a whole lot more interest was applied to what was going on underneath the airways, even if we were up at FL350.

In specific terms, over the last fortnight, North Korea has been launching short and medium range missiles like they are going out of style. Nobody in Pyongyang has any intention of aiming them at civil airliners, but the objective is not where the risk lies. Late last year when Russia fired 30+ missiles into Syria, at least 5 of them went off course (including way above where they should have flown).

This wayward tracking is the greater part of our concern, for all flights within the Pyongyang FIR (ZKKP). Most international overflights are using the North-South airways over water to the east of the landmass, and it’s worth considering that the missiles launched in the last week have been directed out over the sea in this direction (not coincidentally in the direction of Japan, who isn’t on the DPRK Christmas card list either).

US Operators are in any case restricted by SFAR79, but everyone else should be keeping a close eye on their North Korean overflight plans. (If this hasn’t put you off, you can read the full North Korea overflight permit requirements).

Air Koryo B747-8

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