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North Korea Crisis

North Korea seeks to open its skies as Trump-Kim summit nears

Pyongyang asks aviation body to approve trans-regional routes

Passengers board a plane of North Korea's only airline, Air Koryo, at Pyongyang airport in April 2017.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- North Korea is seeking to launch new airline routes as well as open its skies to foreign aircraft as preparations are underway for the country's leader Kim Jong Un to meet U.S. President Donald Trump.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transportation in Sejong confirmed that it was reviewing a request from the International Civil Aviation Organization about North Korea's proposed new international routes which would pass through South Korean airspace.

Air Koryo, North Korea's only airline, currently has three international routes which connect the capital Pyongyang with Beijing and Shenyang in China and Vladivostok in Russia.

"We are checking the issue on the ICAO's request. But we cannot unveil [more details] at this sensitive time," said Kim Nam-keuk, a director at the ministry, adding that they would make an announcement once a decision had been made.

Kim Su-jeong, another director at the ministry, said that North Korea wanted to draw up new routes and was seeking the South's help via the international aviation body. "We have no direct channels on this matter. So, the North made this request through the ICAO," she said.

Pyongyang's move to launch new airline routes comes ahead of a historic meeting planned between North Korean leader Kim and Trump, which is set to take place in May or June, to discuss ways to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. At a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April, Kim said he was willing to make the peninsula nuclear weapons-free through a program of complete denuclearization.

Moon and Kim also reached an agreement to connect the two countries' railways, as well as modernize those in the North for the "balanced development and common prosperity" of the national economy. The two Koreas plan to link the Donghae Line on the east coast and the Gyeongeui Line on the west coast, but experts have said this would only be possible once the United Nations' economic sanctions on North Korea have been lifted.

"The two leaders agreed on many projects, but they cannot be achieved unless denuclearization is realized," said Park Won-gon, a professor of international relations at Handong Global University in Pohang.

Nevertheless, the proposals mark a drastic shift from a few months ago, when airlines flying over or near the peninsula had contingency plans in place in the event that North Korea suddenly tested a missile. Pyongyang launched 20 ballistic missiles last year.

In January, then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson highlighted the threat to civil aviation that North Korean missile tests represented. Tillerson said passengers on a San Francisco-Hong Kong flight in late November had witnessed "parts of a North Korean ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] test."

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