BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korea has agreed not to engage in activities hazardous to aviation without advanced notice, a U.N. aviation agency official said on Thursday, an assurance that could lead to major airlines resuming flights through its airspace.
Airlines take indirect routings to avoid North Korea due to the threat posed from unannounced missile launches that are worrisome in the wake of the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine.
If the airspace was deemed safe, carriers could save fuel and time on some routes between Asia and Europe and North America.
Officials from the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) visited North Korea this week to discuss a request by Pyongyang to open a new air route that would pass through North Korean and South Korean airspace.
“We received a solid assurance from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that they will not be engaging in activities hazardous for aviation without full advanced notice for the other states in the region, and that they would coordinate that activity to ensure that we could retain safety,” ICAO Air Navigation Bureau Director Stephen Creamer said upon his return to Beijing.
Asked whether this meant international airlines would resume flights over North Korea, ICAO Regional Director Arun Mishra said: “It’s always a possibility. ... We’re continuing toward establishing a more healthy relationship.”
ICAO and North Korea’s General Administration of Civil Aviation are also coordinating on an upcoming air traffic management workshop, the U.N. agency said in a statement.
It is the latest sign of practical reconciliation measures taken since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met last month for a first summit by leaders from both countries in years, and signed a pledge to pursue peace on the peninsula.
Countries such as Britain, France, Germany and the United States have advised airlines not to fly in North Korean airspace, known as the Pyongyang flight information region (FIR).
A spokeswoman for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said the airline trade group supports efforts to improve air travel safety and efficiency, including “a direct air route between North Korea and South Korea.”
Mark Zee of Flight Service Bureau, which provides safety information on airspace to airlines, said on Wednesday that North Korea had provided warnings of all missile launches until around 2014 but that gradually ended and by 2016 airlines avoided the airspace entirely.
He said a guarantee by North Korea that it would provide warning if it fired a missile would likely be enough for regulators to remove warnings about the airspace.
Reporting by Joseph Campbell and Martin Pollard in Beijing; additional reporting in Montreal by Allison Lampert, additional reporting and writing by Jamie Freed in Singapore; editing by Jonathan Oatis