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Unannounced DPRK Missile Tests Pose a Risk to Commercial Flights

Missiles can veer off course and enter busy airspace. They can also break up and create a dangerous debris field.

During a meeting of its 226th Session earlier this month, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council condemned the continuation of unannounced missiles being launched by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which continue to pose a serious safety risk to international civil aviation, and occurred in defiance of United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolutions. 

As the ICAO Council met, a statement was released by the G7 foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and the High Representative of the European Union, condemning the test of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile by the DPRK on May 25. The tests followed Joe Biden’s first presidential tour of Asia.

In their statement, the G7 leaders said the tests “pose a danger and unpredictable risk to international civil aviation and maritime navigation in the region”.

As an ICAO Member State, the DPRK is expected to notify adjacent countries of any activity or incident arising from its territory which may pose risks to nearby civil aviation routes or operations. This would include matters such as volcanic ash clouds from local eruptions, or aerial testing which may affect civil aviation. However, the DPRK does not announce its missile tests beforehand which means they come without warning or flight path data.

It is highly unlikely that Pyongyang is targeting commercial flights with the missile tests – the response would almost certainly reach far beyond sanctions. But accidents can happen, missiles can veer off course and enter busy airspace. They can also break up and create a dangerous debris field. The risk is increasing due to the number of unannounced missile tests in recent months. DPRK has already tested 31 missiles this year, surpassing the previous annual record of 25 from 2019.

And on June 25, the anniversary of the start of the Korean War in 1950, DPRK vowed to take revenge on “aggression moves” by Washington and Seoul. Earlier this month, DPRK launched eight missiles in one day. The following day, South Korea and the U.S. military launched eight ground-to-ground Army Tactical Missile System missiles (ATACMS) in a combined live-fire exercise.

This is not the first time the ICAO Council has urged the DPRK to act in accordance with and respect for the Convention on International Civil Aviation, and to comply with applicable ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices. And it is unlikely to be the last. So far this year, the DPRK has tested short-range missiles, long-range cruise missiles, a submarine-launched ballistic missile, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and what it described as hypersonic missiles. U.S. and South Korean officials have said they are concerned that Pyongyang could soon conduct what would be its seventh nuclear test, without prior warning to the aviation community.

The ICAO Council has also reiterated that its Secretariat should avoid all technical activities with the DPRK of a direct or indirect nature. The Council requested the Secretariat to continue to actively monitor the situation and to report any developments.

The matter will be submitted to all ICAO member states at the 41st Session of the ICAO Assembly to convene in September this year, for their consideration in accordance with the Convention on International Civil Aviation.

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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