Kim Jong Il, the autocratic ruler of North Korea who died over the weekend, played an unusual role in establishing commercial flight paths in Northeast Asia. The unpredictable Kim opened up the country's airspace in 1998 to airlines flying to/from South Korea after a 40-year ban—and then abruptly closed it again in 2009, forcing many flights to be rerouted over Japan.
Saying it wanted to make a "great contribution to the development of air transport in the world," the North Korean government announced in 1998 that it would allow flights through its airspace for the first time since the 1950s. According to South Korea's JoonAng Daily, over the next decade carriers submitted flight plans to North Korea for each flight that would pass through its airspace; the diplomatically isolated nation collected an average of $870 in fees per flight.
The South Korean government said in 2009 that 5,260 flights per year used North Korean airspace. South Korean carriers annually paid nearly $4 million to Pyongyang for airspace access.
But in early March 2009, as tensions rose on the Korean peninsula, the North Korean government said it was "compelled to declare that security cannot be guaranteed for South Korean civil airplanes flying through the territorial air of our side."
That cryptic statement set off immediate alarm bells—and drew harsh condemnation—worldwide. Airlines in Europe, North America and other parts of Asia took no chances and started rerouting Seoul-bound flights around North Korean airspace. Korean Air and Asiana Airlines began rerouting an estimated 15 daily flights that approach South Korea from the east to new flight paths that take aircraft over Japan, adding an estimated 30-40 min. and $2,500 in operational costs to each flight. At the time, 33 flights passed through North Korean airspace daily, 18 of which were operated by non-Korean airlines.
"The military threat against normal operation of civilian airliners under international aviation protocols is in violation of international norms and is inhumane," South Korea's government said in a March 2009 statement. "It can never be justified under any circumstance."
During a trip to Seoul earlier this year, I was informed that the situation remained unchanged.