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Tech & Science North Korea: Why airline passengers shouldn't worry about getting hit by an ICBM

17:49  05 december  2017
17:49  05 december  2017 Source:   abc.net.au

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A Qantas A380 Airbus takes off from Auckland International Airport© Phil Walter/Getty Images A Qantas A380 Airbus takes off from Auckland International Airport North Korea tested another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) last week, and according to the crew of a Cathay Pacific flight, they witnessed its apparent re-entry.

The missile flew for 53 minutes — and reached 4,475 kilometres in altitude — before hitting the Sea of Japan about 950km away from its launch point.

But if you're worried about the possibility of one of these ICBMs hitting a passenger plane, experts say you shouldn't be. Here's why.

Dr Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst in defence strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the aircraft would have to be in "exactly the right location" in the air as the ICBM comes down for the two to meet.

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If you're worried about the possibility of one of North Korea 's ICBMs hitting a passenger plane, experts say you shouldn ' t be. Here's why .

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He said the odds of that happening are "almost infinitesimally low".

Neil Hanford from Strategic Aviation Solutions agreed the odds are very low, saying the, "chances are even worse than winning Lotto".

Dr Davis said the risk can be compared to that of space junk which is "constantly" re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.

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"Most of it does burn up in the upper atmosphere, but occasionally you do get some larger bits surviving," he said.

"You see reports for example of fireballs coming in where someone takes a picture of what looks like a bright meteor — some of that is space junk.

"That tends to burn up in the lower atmosphere, but of course airliners fly high up, so in the same way that a ballistic missile potentially could threaten an airliner, so could space junk."

But again, he said space junk collisions are very unlikely.

A Qantas Airways Airbus A330-300 jet takes off from Sydney International Airport over the city skyline, December 18, 2015.© REUTERS/Jason Reed/File photo A Qantas Airways Airbus A330-300 jet takes off from Sydney International Airport over the city skyline, December 18, 2015. Dr Davis said once an ICBM is fired, there's a way to calculate where it will come down.

He says information from the air defence systems of the US, South Korea and Japan can be passed on to any airliners that are in the region that might be at risk.

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But North Korea reaffirmed Wednesday that it would never deviate from its determination to bolster its nuclear and missile abilities as long as the United States’ Still, American policy makers have long seen just the development of an ICBM as a critical threshold the North should not be allowed to cross.

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"Basically, air traffic control monitors all airliner activity. They would get immediate notification that there's a threat, and they would begin diverting airliners away from any likely re-entry point," Dr Davis said.

"It's not like these aircraft are sort of flying off relentlessly irrespective of what's going on around them; they have pilots onboard who can take immediate action."

So he says if he were flying between Beijing and Tokyo, as an example, he wouldn't be too concerned.

He says the surface-to-air missiles North Korea possesses have a range of 200 to 300 kilometres.

He says North Korea could see a passenger plane flying too close as an opportunity to "create an incident".

"They would have to know that in doing so they would be courting disaster — they would be risking a military response," he said.

However, he says the only reason he would be "slightly uncertain" about whether there would actually be a military response is due to the responses we've seen to previous incidents where airlines have been shot down — such as MH17 in Ukraine in 2014 and KAL007 by the Soviets in 1983.

"There was no military response there because we knew the Russians had nuclear weapons — well, the North Koreans have nuclear weapons," he said.

Apart from surface-to-air missiles, another potentially more likely possibility would be North Korea using an aircraft to either shoot down a plane or force it to land in North Korea.

But Dr Davis noted that in those scenarios, North Korea would have no plausible deniability as it would be clear the targeted aircraft was non-military.

"When you look at Flight Tracker and so forth, it's very obvious that the airlines fly well away from North Korea," he said.

He says there would have to be "a blunder of significant proportions" for an airliner to fly close enough to be at risk.

So, the message is: don't be too concerned.

American who defected to North Korea dies .
Charles Jenkins was among four US defectors in the 1960s who later became North Korean film stars.Charles Jenkins, 77, lived in Japan where he had settled with his family after his 2004 release.

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