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Exclusive: U.S. blocks North Korean air traffic revival ahead of Trump-Kim summit-sources



MONTREAL / SEOUL (Reuters) – The United States has blocked efforts by a U.N. Reuters reported that three civilians were familiar with the matter at a time when Pyongyang was trying to reopen part of its airspace to foreign flights.

FILE PHOTO – U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong And meet at the start of their summit at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, Singapore on June 12, 2018. REUTERS / Jonathan Ernst

The U.S. One of the sources said, ahead of a second summit between President Donald Trump and leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam at the end of February, the move is part of a negotiating tactic to maintain sanctions on North Korea.

Washington is seeking concrete commitments from Pyongyang at the summit to abandon its nuclear and missile programs.

The United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), with 192 member countries, has been working with Pyongyang to open a new air route that would pass through the North and South Korean airspace.

Airlines are currently taking indirect routings to avoid North Korea due to the threat of unannounced missile launches, which have been witnessed by some passengers on commercial flights.

If the space was considered safe, international airlines could save fuel and time on some routes between Asia and Europe and North America, and North Korea could begin to revive its own commercial aviation industry.

The cash-strapped country has a population of more than 25 million, but its economy has been squeezed by a series of sanctions for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Montreal-based ICAO was prepared to help improve the North Korean aviation system by leading training sessions between its military and civil aviation staff, two sources said.

North Korea also asked the ICAO for access to U.S. -produced aeronautical charts, they said.

U.S SEEKS LEVERAGE

But the United States discouraged the U.N. Washington wanted to "pool all the leverages and incentives" until Pyongyang makes significant progress on denuclearization, a third source said.

"They would hold a tight hold of all available leverage to ensure there is no loophole until the North Koreans take action that deserves a reward," the source said.

All sources spoke are the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

The ICAO can not impose binding rules on governments, but wields clout through its safety and security standards that are approved by its member states.

Asked for comment, a U.S. State Department official said it does not publicly discuss details of diplomatic conversations. An ICAO spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The North Korean Mission to the United Nations in New York did not respond to a request for comment and there was no immediate reaction from the South Korean Foreign Ministry.

In 2017, the United States proposed the U.N. The Security Council freezes the assets of the state-carrier Air Koryo, which flies to a handful of cities in China and Russia as part of the new sanctions on Pyongyang. The measure was dropped during negotiations between the 15 members.

Airlines, including Air Koryo and Air China Ltd offer less than 200,000 seats available a year on the North Korean market, according to a January note from the independent research firm CAPA Center for Aviation.

CAPA said it compares with over 13 million seats available on the South Korean market, which has roughly double the population.

The largest beneficiaries of lifting air restrictions over North Korea would be South Korean carriers, including Korean Air Lines and Asiana Airlines Inc., according to CAPA.

DENUCLEARIZATION PRESSURE

Washington has promised to relax certain rules on humanitarian aid.

South and North Korea, meanwhile, have quickly developed relations, which prompted U.S. officials openly warn against moving too quickly without sufficient progress on denuclearization.

A fourth source told Reuters that the U.S. move to facilitate humanitarian aid was intended to appease South Korea, facing some complaints that Washington is not willing to make any concessions.

"But they made it clear that there will be no relief of economic sanctions until they see significant progress," said the source who also spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Reporting by Allison Lampert in Montreal and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul. Additional reporting by Jamie Freed in Singapore, David Shepardson in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Tracy Rucinski and Lincoln Feast

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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