By Jean H. Lee
Saturday, March 7, 2009
SEOUL, March 6 -- Air Canada and Singapore Airlines joined South Korean airlines in rerouting flights to avoid North Korean airspace Friday after the communist regime threatened the South's passenger planes amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea warned late Thursday that it could not guarantee the safety of South Korea's passenger jets flying near its airspace if annual U.S.-South Korean military maneuvers go ahead as planned Monday.
The South's two main airlines, Korean Air and Asiana Airlines, immediately began redirecting flights.
On Friday, at least two foreign airlines, Air Canada and Singapore Airlines, also changed flight paths to and from Seoul, an official at the Civil Aviation Safety Authority said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Pyongyang's warning was the latest threat from North Korea at a time of mounting tensions over stalled reconciliation efforts and the North's plan for a missile test. The two Koreas technically remain at war because their bitter 1950-1953 conflict ended in a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty.
Relations have worsened since conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office a year ago and refused to provide the impoverished North with aid unless the regime abided by its commitment to dismantle its nuclear program.
North Korea cut off ties, canceled inter-Korean projects and declared peacekeeping agreements with the South void.
In issuing its threat to South Korean airliners, the North did not say what kind of danger jetliners might face. It was not clear whether it was threatening to shoot down planes.
"We plan to make our flight detour through Japanese airspace until the crisis is resolved," said Park Hyun-soo, deputy general manager of Asiana Airlines' operations control center.
Park said the rerouting would add about 40 minutes to each flight and cost about $2,500 per leg.
The U.S.-South Korean military exercises are set to begin Monday and run 12 days. The U.S. military said it would go ahead with the drills, which involve its 26,000 military personnel in South Korea, an unspecified number of South Korean soldiers and a U.S. aircraft carrier.