The Federal Aviation Administration has ‘prohibited’ all U.S. carriers, commercial flights and privately licensed American pilots from flying in North Korea’s Pyongyang eastern region, which were previously allowed under another special federal aviation regulation issued twenty years ago, according to an FAA flight bulletin.
Despite diplomatic talks on Tuesday between North Korean and South Korean leaders, the situation remains dire, said several U.S. officials, who added the unpredictability of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, makes him extremely dangerous.
“Due to the hazardous situation created by North Korean military capabilities and activities, including unannounced North Korean missile launches and air defense weapons systems, all flight operations in the Pyongyang (ZKKP) flight information region (Flight Information Region) by the persons described in paragraph a below are prohibited,” states the FAA flight prohibition, enacted on Nov. 3, 2016. “This Notam expands the FAA’s flight prohibition to include all operations in the Pyongyang (ZKKP) (Flight Information Region) east of 132 degrees east longitude, which were previously allowed under special federal aviation regulation no. 79.”
The travel ban was implemented just as the Trump administration continues to weigh both military and diplomatic options on how to handle the threat of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Last November, on the heels of the travel ban, North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile, called the Hwasong-15. It traveled roughly 2,800 miles into space and spent 53 minutes in the air before coming down in the waters off the coast of Japan. The missile flew more than 10 times the height of the International Space Station and put the U.S. mainland in reach of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, according to U.S. officials and news reports.
And U.S. military and intelligence officials have reason to be concerned.
Over the past year, North Korea detonated its first hydrogen bomb and has tested three continental ballistic missiles, according to reports. The response from the White House has been swift and Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis warned North Korea before Christmas “the storm clouds are gathering.”
A U.S. official, familiar with the new FAA ban, said the prohibition is “significant because it clears the airspace of all U.S. commercial and carrier aircraft, minus any authorized military aircraft, as the administration decides what steps need to be taken to handle the rogue and unpredictable regime.”
“It sets the stage for a possible military offensive and protects U.S. aircraft from North Korean threats,” said a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the nature of their work.
FAA spokeswoman Marcia Alexander-Adams directed all comments on the FAA bulletin to the State Department.
State Department officials directed all questions back to the FAA, where they declined to comment on the new changes in the regulations.
North Korean and South Korean officials said they agreed to hold “military talks” in a joint statement released Tuesday. The much anticipated agreement came after 12 hours of diplomatic negotiations, in which North Korea also agreed to send a high-level delegation to Pyeongchang, South Korea for the Winter Olympics in February.
The previous flight regulation, known as FAA No. 79, was issued on April 18, 1997. At the time, FAA officials were concerned that civil aircraft could be shot down by North Korea’s air defense system and the ban extended to the entire Flight Information Region of Pyongyang. In February 1998, however, that changed and the FAA decided to allow flights in the eastern zone of the region.
The new FAA prohibition includes, “all U.S. air carriers and commercial operators; all persons exercising the privileges of an airman certificate issued by the FAA, except such persons operating U.S.-registered aircraft for a foreign air carrier; and all operators of aircraft registered in the United States, except where the operator of such aircraft is a foreign air carrier.”