A North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile launch in November was witnessed by passengers on a San Francisco-to-Hong Kong commercial flight, highlighting the "recklessness" of Kim Jong Un's regime, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.
"According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the flight was 280 nautical miles from point of impact, and at the time there were nine other flights within that range," Tillerson said today in Vancouver, where he's pressing officials from allied nations to tighten sanctions on Pyongyang.
"Over the course of that day, according to the Department of Defence, an estimated 716 flights were due to pass within that same range."
Tillerson didn't say which airline the passengers were on when they saw "parts of a North Korean ICBM test flying through the sky" on November 28, or whether the plane changed its route as a result.
The launch flew for 53 minutes on a lofted trajectory and may have reached an altitude of more than 4000km before landing in waters about 250km from Japan's northwest coast, Japanese officials said at the time. US Secretary of Defence James Mattis said that it flew higher than any previous North Korean launch.
"My point is this: North Korea's willingness to launch missiles at any time presents a threat to people of all nationalities in the region's airspace each day," Tillerson said today, adding that the threat to commercial aviation is not the "likeliest" threat posed by the regime's weapons programme.
Nevertheless, "based on its past recklessness, we cannot expect North Korea to have any regard for what might get in the way of one of its missiles, or parts of a missile breaking apart".
Crew on flights operated by Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd and Korean Air Lines Co said at the time that they saw what appeared to be the test missile on re-entry as they flew towards Asia from the US west coast.
The crew of Cathay's Flight 893 from San Francisco reported the sighting and advised Japanese air traffic control, the carrier said in an emailed statement at the time. Korean Air crew on flights that departed from Los Angeles and San Francisco saw a "flash" in the air, according to a company spokesman.
Both companies said they weren't planning on changing routes based on the sighting.