The US has prevented a UN agency from improving civil aviation in North Korea while Pyongyang is trying to reopen part of its airspace to foreign flights, three sources familiar with the matter have told Reuters.
One of the sources described the move as part of US’ negotiating tactic to keep sanctions pressure on the North less than two weeks before the second summit between President Donald Trump and leader Kim Jong-un.
The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has been working to help Pyongyang open a new air route that would pass through North and South Korean airspace.
However, the US has blocked the effort as it is seeking to “pool all the leverages and incentives” until it can see considerable progress in Pyongyang’s denuclearization process, said one of the sources.
“They would keep tight hold of all available leverage to make sure there is no loophole until the North Koreans take action that deserves a reward,” the source said.
Presently, airlines take indirect routes to avoid crossing North Korea’s airspace over fears of unannounced missile launches, which some passengers on commercial flights have previously witnessed.
If Montreal-based ICAO could make the route safe, international airlines would be able to save fuel and time on some routes between Asia and Europe and North America. In addition, Pyongyang could start reviving its own commercial aviation industry.
The agency also intended to help improve North Korea’s aviation system by holding training sessions between its military and civil aviation staff, according to two sources.
North Korea has also asked ICAO to enable it to have access to US-produced aeronautical charts, the sources said.
As part of new sanctions on Pyongyang in 2017, the US asked the UN Security Council to freeze the assets of state-carrier Air Koryo, which flies to a few cities in China and Russia. The measure, however, was dropped during talks between the 15 members.
Air Koryo and Air China Ltd as well as some other airlines are able to transport less than 200,000 people a year in the North Korean market, showed a January note from independent research firm CAPA Centre for Aviation.
Since the last summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore, the North has suspended missile and nuclear testing, demolished at least one nuclear test site, and agreed to allow international inspectors into a missile engine test facility and another nuclear testing site.
North Korean authorities, however, have complained about continued US and UN sanctions, calling them a “source of mistrust.”