North Korea proposes new air route through peninsula

South Korea said on Tuesday that North Korea had proposed a new air route through the two countries, as relations between the neighbors thaw after a breakthrough meeting of their leaders last month.

At the historic summit, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to end military hostilities against the South in every area, including airspace, and revitalize exchanges with South Korea, which is technically at war with Pyongyang.

United Nations aviation agency directors will visit North Korea this week to discuss an earlier request by Pyongyang to open new air routes to South Korea, the organization said on Friday.

Japanese broadcaster NHK said two agency officials arrived at the Beijing airport on Monday en route to Pyongyang, with one of them saying they would discuss flight safety with North Korea.

In October, the agency condemned North Korea over its continued launch of ballistic missiles that threaten the safety of international civil aviation.

“We are aware that what North Korea has proposed is opening an international air route that will link Pyongyang’s FIR and Incheon’s FIR to a third country, not a direct flight route between Pyongyang and Incheon,” South Korean foreign ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk told a regular briefing.

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He was using abbreviations to refer to the flight information regions of each country.

If established, the new route would be an air traffic highway for any flight passing through the two countries’ airspace, a South Korean government official with direct knowledge of the matter said.

South Korea is reviewing the North’s request and nothing has been decided yet, the official added.

Countries such as Britain, France, Germany and the United States have advised airlines not to fly in North Korean airspace because unannounced missile launches pose threats to commercial jets.

The new proposals came as the United Nations food agency said its chief would visit North Korea on Tuesday to look into boosting food distributions.

About 70 per cent of North Korea’s population of 25 million is "food insecure", meaning they struggle to avoid hunger, and one in four children under five is stunted from chronic malnutrition, according to the WFP. A 2015 drought worsened the situation, it says.

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The agency currently aims to assist 650,000 women and children there each month providing fortified cereals and biscuits.

"Funding shortfalls have meant that rations have had to be reduced and suspended in some cases," WFP said in a statement coinciding with the start of the May 8-11 visit by WFP executive director David Beasley.

It gave no details, but figures on the WFP website show that its $52 million appeal for 2018 is only 19.2 per cent funded. Switzerland, Sweden and France are among the leading donors.

“WFP has been working in DPR Korea for more than two decades, helping to strengthen food security in the country and provide nutritious food to women and children," Beasley said.

"This week, I will visit schools and nurseries to meet some of the mothers and young children WFP is supporting, as well as to understand the needs of the operation, which at this point is under-funded.”

WFP and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are among only a few aid agencies with access to North Korea, which suffered famine in the mid-1990s that killed up to three million people.

UNICEF said in January that an estimated 60,000 North Korean children face potential starvation. It blamed international sanctions targeting the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes for exacerbating the situation by slowing aid deliveries and making fuel scarcer and more expensive.

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