DPRK: Missile Impact in Close Proximity to International Air Routes

Fortify Security Team
Nov 29, 2022

On 17 November 2022, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) conducted a test launch of a long-range ballistic missile without issuing advance warning, posing a risk to civil aviation and maritime vessels. The missile traveled beyond the boundaries of the Pyongyang Flight Information Region (FIR) (ZKKP) and impacted in the Sea of Japan within the Fukuoka FIR (RJJJ) in close proximity to several international air routes. The DPRK’s test launches of intercontinental and intermediate range ballistic missiles during 2022, and in prior years, have demonstrated missile trajectories into adjacent FIRs resulting in risk to civil aircraft and maritime vessels operating in the region. Additional unannounced DPRK missile tests are likely in the near term as the DRPK continues its strategic weapons development program. Historically, the DPRK has conducted unannounced ballistic missile launches coinciding with U.S. – Republic of Korea (RoK) combined military exercises and high-level U.S. visits to the region.

The DPRK’s increasingly provocative military activities, including air exercises in proximity to the RoK, preparations to resume nuclear warhead testing, and missile tests into adjacent FIRs, including over Japan, have escalated regional tensions. The DPRK’s continued failure to provide adequate advance warning of missile launches, and the increasing frequency of DPRK missile launches, especially into the Sea of Japan, present potential safety hazards to civil aviation and maritime operations, particularly when the activity extends beyond the boundaries of the Pyongyang FIR. Specifically, these activities pose deconfliction challenges and raise risks to civil aircraft in flight. Risk exposure is from inadvertent missile impact or from missile debris.

In the most recent missile launch, 17 November, the DPRK launched a likely Hwansong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport (ICAO code: ZKPY). The missile traveled approximately 540 nm (1000 km), reaching a maximum altitude of 6,100 km (3,790 mi) with a trajectory overflying multiple international air routes. The flight time was just under 69 minutes, which could have resulted in aircraft or maritime vessels unwittingly entering the missile impact area. Japan’s Ministry of Defense determined the missile impacted in the Sea of Japan within the Fukuoka FIR (RJJJ) and within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), 108 nm (200 km) west of Oshima Island, Hokkaido Prefecture, Japan. Based upon analysis of the official statements on the missile trajectory and the point of impact, the missile likely impacted in close proximity to several air routes (see graphic below). Fortunately, there were no known civil flight operations in close proximity to the missile impact area, based on a review of open-source flight tracking sites.

The most recent previous DPRK ICBM launch occurred on 2 November and involved a probable Hwasong-17 ICBM launch. The DPRK also launched two short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) on the same date. The ICBM flew approximately 466 mi (750 km) and reached a maximum altitude of 1,242 mi, (2,000 km). The ICBM impacted in the Sea of Japan, likely within the Pyongyang FIR.

Also, on 1 November, the DPRK launched more than 20 missiles from both its west and east coasts. The launches included SRBMs, close-range ballistic missiles (CRBMs) and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). This was the DPRK’s largest single-day missile launch event. One missile impacted in international waters in the Sea of Japan, 31 nm (57 km) east of Sokcho, RoK. This marked the closest DPRK missile impact to RoK territory to date. The RoK and Japan, but not the DPRK, issued temporary flight advisories and restrictions in response to the 1 November launch events.

The DPRK’s missile launches during the past two months continue the trend of an increased volume of DPRK missile launch operations during 2022. The DPRK has used the increased launch tempo to test an expanded quantity, range, and sophistication of developmental strategic missiles. Since January, the DPRK has conducted more than 70 missile tests, including ICBMs, SRBMs, SAMs, sea-launched, and purported hypersonic ballistic missiles. Several of these missiles have impacted beyond the boundaries of the Pyongyang FIR. This includes the 4 October launch of what the DPRK claimed to be an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM). The claimed IRBM traveled a distance of 2,430 nm (4,500 km) and reached a peak altitude of approximately 600 mi (1,000 km), while overflying Japan and impacting in the western Pacific Ocean, making it the DPRK’s longest missile test trajectory to date. Additional DPRK missile launches are likely, with some of these missiles potentially traveling beyond the Pyongyang FIR and into adjacent airspace.

Weapon testing activities confined within the Pyongyang FIR should not affect U.S. operators, but foreign civil aircraft operating in the Pyongyang FIR may be exposed to risks from DPRK weapon test launches. As previously described, some DPRK missiles or their debris may have trajectories taking them outside the Pyongyang FIR, thus posing potential risks to civil aircraft operations in adjacent airspace. In the event of an in-flight missile failure, depending on the circumstances and location of the failure, an elliptical debris field could result, which would expand the geographic area of potential risk to civil aircraft and/or maritime vessels transiting the region.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) No. 79, 14 C.F.R. § 91.1615, prohibits U.S. civil aviation from operating in the entirety of the Pyongyang FIR due to the risk to U.S. civil flight operations posed by the DPRK’s military capabilities and activities, including, but not limited to, unannounced missile launches. Copies of all FAA-issued flight prohibition SFARs, flight prohibition NOTAMs, and advisory NOTAMs are available on FAA’s Prohibitions, Restrictions, and Notices website at: http://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/publications/us_restrictions/.

U.S. civil aviation operators should monitor regional NOTAMs, maintain communications with appropriate air traffic control (ATC) authorities, and follow ATC instructions.

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