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The BBC reports that (for the 2nd time since 2017) "North Korea fires ballistic missile over Japan". The missile fell into the Pacific ocean.

I'm guessing there are some treaties on the maximum height national airspace extends to, otherwise countries (which do have such ASAT capabilities) would be shooting down unfriendly spy satellites above their territory all the time.

So, what are the internationally accepted rules for ballistic missiles' trajectories?

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    I know from that BBC piece that North Korea is prohibited by a UNSC resolution from certain kinds of missile tests. I'm asking what the general rules would be, for other countries. The BBC also claims that "Flying missiles towards or over other countries without any warning or consultation also contravenes international norms." but doesn't get into details on those norms. Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 17:26
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    Regarding the height of national airspace, see here: aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/43439/… . The accepted answer is 5 years old, but still seems to apply. Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 17:26
  • @CharlieEvans: interesting. So apparently the USA and USSR not shooting down each other's spy sats was an unwritten "gentlemen's agreement" (which didn't extended to manned spy planes.) Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 17:38
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    My guess would be that North Korea is the only country in the world that does that without getting an agreement from the country overflown first and everywhere else this is handled the same way as military aircraft flying over a foreign country.
    – quarague
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 8:03
  • "otherwise countries ... would be shooting down" Not necessarily. Just because they would be allowed to do that (according to some rules), doesn't mean they have to do it all the time. They could simply tolerate it instead. Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 9:26

2 Answers 2

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Q: Are there any international rules against firing ballistic missiles over other countries?

Apparently not. There is, however, a consensus to talk more about the issue.

United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, Missiles

Currently, there is no legally binding multilateral instrument dealing with the issue of missiles.

Pursuant to General Assembly resolutions, three Panels of Government Experts devoted to the issue of missiles have been established within the United Nations. The first Panel was established from July 2001 to July 2002, the second Panel in 2004 and the third Panel completed its work in June 2008, agreeing on its report by consensus. There has been no resolution introduced on the topic in the General Assembly since 2008 (resolution 63/55).

A/63/176 The issue of missiles in all its aspects Report of the Secretary-General, 28 July 2008.

The Panel concluded, among other things, that it was important to have continued international efforts to deal with the increasingly complex issue of missiles in the interest of international peace and security and to deliberate further on the issue, specifically focusing attention on existing and emerging areas of consensus. The Panel also emphasized the important role of the United Nations in providing a more structured and effective mechanism to build such a consensus.

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    UN doesn't seem to appreciate deep linking "you have reached this site through unauthorized means". Exact same link work when accessed from undocs.org/Home/… Commented Oct 8, 2023 at 2:10
  • While not specifically about missiles, aren't there rules about invading the airspace of another county? If you can't fly an airplane or blimp over another country, surely you can't fly a missile over it.
    – Barmar
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 21:24
  • @Barmar - An earlier comment on the question points to Is there a height limit to national airspace?. The accepted answer, in a quote, says, "There is no international agreement on the vertical limit of state sovereignty." That leaves it up to the other country to complain through appropriate channels or take other action.
    – Rick Smith
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 21:47
  • @RickSmith I'm not very familiar with the details of ballistic missiles, but I assumed they flew much closer to airspace than outer space, so that fuzzy boundary wasn't an issue.
    – Barmar
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 21:53
  • @Barmar - "..., the highest altitude (apogee) reached during free-flight is about 4,500 kilometers (2,800 mi)." -- Ballistic missile. This compares to 18 kilometers (11 miles) as the upper limit for aircraft (except SSTs and some spy planes).
    – Rick Smith
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 22:07
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This is marginal information, but interestingly enough North Korea says (and Reuters agrees with that) that their ICBM (but not necessarily other, e.g. IRBM) tests can be distinguished from actual attacks by the "lofted trajectory" their tests take. E.g. in July 2023:

The Hwasong-18's 74-minute flight time was the longest ever for a North Korean missile test, KCNA said, adding the second and third stages were flown on a lofted trajectory to a high altitude for safety.

"The test-fire had no negative effect on the security of the neighbouring countries," it said.

Or from an earlier reporting in Feb 2023:

North Korea has never launched an ICBM on anything but a lofted trajectory, which sends missiles high into space rather than on the lower and longer flight paths that they would follow in real use.

Pyongyang says it does this out of concern for the safety of its neighbours.

I'm not exactly sure if everyone else is convinced that attacks couldn't be purposefully launched like that.

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  • This is interesting, but I don't think it answers the question you asked. Also, given the speed of a rocket, and the unknown final altitude (which is unknown until the rocket has reached that altitude and begins descending), these statements make sense only after the fact. In other words, while the rocket is being prepared for launch, and as it is being launched, it is likely difficult to detect exactly where it is headed and where it will impact. Finally, keep in mind that rockets often deploy multiple warheads that land across a large area. Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 9:52
  • @RockPaperLz-MaskitorCasket: Largely I agree. It seems to be modus vivendi or ad-hoc rule that North Korea is proposing, but I'm not sure how much other countries are buying into it. The Reuters pieces don't mention any explicit reaction in that regard. Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 9:58
  • My perception is that North Korea knows that if any missile, intentionally or accidentally, lands in any other nation, the North Korean government & military will no longer exist. Which does make me wonder why they persist on making missiles. I think they hope it generates fear, but in reality I don't think it does. I think all nations are aware of the consequences, and thus don't really care that much about North Korea's missile launches (except perhaps Japan because of the close proximity, population density of major cities, and perhaps residual trauma from WWII). Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 10:25

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