No route changes after 3 flight crews report flash of light during N. Korea ICBM test

The crews of three commercial airlines reported witnessing flashes of light while traveling through the sky last week. The sightings are believed to have been of North Korea's latest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test.

A Korean Air pilot preparing to land at Seoul's Incheon Airport from San Francisco was the first to report seeing a flash of light to ground control. The report came about one hour after the missile was launched from a site north of Pyongyang, Yonhap reported.

Minutes later, the pilot of another Korean Air plane reported seeing a similar flash of light, airline spokesman Cho Hyun-mook said, as cited by AP. That aircraft was crossing the Sea of Japan (the East Sea, as it’s known in the Koreas) on a flight arriving to Incheon from Los Angeles.

Cathay Pacific also reported that one of its crews flying from San Francisco to Hong Kong reported witnessing the apparent re-entry of the ICBM. The Hong Kong-based airline said the missile was far from the plane and the aircraft's route was unaffected.

The airline went on to state that it informed authorities and other carriers at the time. However, it said it would not be changing any routes as a result of the incident. “At the moment, no one is changing any routes or operating parameters,” the airline said in a statement. “We remain alert and (will) review the situation as it evolves.”

North Korea's test last Wednesday of the Hwasong-15 ICBM saw the missile reach an altitude of 4,475km (2,780 miles) before falling into the Sea of Japan after 53 minutes in the air, Pyongyang said. It also claimed the missile is capable of hitting the entire US mainland.

Although airlines have not announced any moves to change routes following the most recent launch, Lufthansa, Swiss Airlines, and Scandinavian Airlines changed their routes in August following Pyongyang's first successful ICBM launches in July, the Financial Times wrote at the time. The airlines now reportedly avoid crossing directly over the Sea of Japan when approaching the region from Europe. Air France also announced at the time that it had expanded its no-fly zone over North Korea, after one of its planes flew past the location where an ICBM splashed down 10 minutes later.

Meanwhile, tensions on the Korean Peninsula continue to escalate, with the US and South Korea launching major joint drills on Monday. Pyongyang has said the drills prove that US President Donald Trump is “begging” for nuclear war. 

North Korea has long objected against joint drills by the two allies, with Pyongyang's ambassador to the UN ruling out negotiations with Washington in November, citing America's “hostile policy” against his country and continuing joint exercises. “As long as there is a continuous hostile policy against my country by the US and as long as there are continued war games on our doorstep, then there will not be negotiations,” Han Tae Song said at the time.

Russia and China have also called on a halt in the joint exercises as part of a so-called “double freeze” plan. That plan would see the drills suspended in exchange for Pyongyang halting its nuclear and ballistic missile tests. However, the proposal was swiftly rejected by Washington over the summer.

Moscow believes the regular drills, combined with Washington's saber-rattling, are “provoking Pyongyang into taking some rash action” after months of restraint, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Thursday. He noted that one such threat was a claim by Nikki Haley, the US envoy to the UN, in which she said the North Korean regime would be “utterly destroyed in case of war.” Lavrov slammed the comment as a “bloodthirsty tirade.”