Exclusive: the United States blocks the relaunch of air traffic in North Korea before the Trump-Kim summit – sources

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MONTREAL / SEOUL (Reuters) – The United States has blocked the efforts of a U.N. agency. to improve civil aviation in North Korea at a time when Pyongyang is trying to re-open some of its airspace to foreign flights, three familiar sources have reported to Reuters.

FILE PHOTO – US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet at the beginning of their summit at Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island, Singapore, 12 June 2018. REUTERS / Jonathan Ernst

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

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

The United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), with 192 member countries, has worked with Pyongyang to open a new air route that would cross the airspace of North and South Korea.

Currently, airlines are taking indirect routes to avoid North Korea due to the threat of unannounced missile launches, which have witnessed some passengers on commercial flights.

If space were deemed safe, international airlines could save fuel and time on some routes between Asia and Europe and North America, and North Korea could start to revitalize its industry. 39; commercial aviation.

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

ICAO in Montreal was prepared to help improve the North Korean aeronautical system by conducting training sessions between military personnel and civil aviation, two sources reported.

North Korea also asked ICAO for access to aeronautical maps produced by the United States, they said.

U.S SEEKS LEVERAGE

But the United States has discouraged the U.N. agency. from helping North Korea with its air program, while Washington wanted to "bring together all the levers and incentives" until Pyongyang made substantial progress on denuclearization, a third source said.

"They would keep a tight grip on all the available leverage to make sure there is no way out until the North Koreans take action that deserves a reward," the source said.

All sources spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter.

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

Asked for comment, a US State Department official said he did not publicly discuss details of diplomatic conversations. A spokesman for ICAO did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The North Korean mission to the UN 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 to the United States Security Council to freeze the assets of the state airline Air Koryo, which flies to a handful of cities in China and Russia, as part of the new sanctions in Pyongyang. The measure was withdrawn during the negotiations between the 15 members.

Airlines including Air Koryo and Air China Ltd offer less than 200,000 seats available in the North Korean market, according to a January report by the independent research company CAPA Center for Aviation.

This compares with over 13 million available seats in the South Korean market, which has about twice the population, CAPA said.

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

DENUCLEARIZATION PRESSURE

The United States has doubled the application of sanctions in view of the second planned summit, among the concerns of Pyongyang, which is not engaged in denuclearization, although Washington has promised to loosen certain rules on humanitarian aid.

South Korea and North Korea, meanwhile, quickly advanced relations, which prompted US officials to openly warn against moving too quickly without sufficient progress on denuclearization.

A fourth source told Reuters that the US move to facilitate humanitarian aid was intended to appease South Korea, in the face of complaints about which Washington is unwilling to make concessions.

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

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

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