Air Koryo is the state owned and government run airline of North Korea, based at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport. It was founded under the name SOKAO in 1950 as a joint venture between North Korea and Soviet Russia, but had to suspend business shortly after due to the Korean War. A successor was established in 1954 under the name of Choson Minhang and started operations in late September of 1955 before being renamed Air Koryo in 1993. Air Koryo from the beginning was placed under the control of the Civil Aviation Administration, a part of the North Korean Airforce – which means that all pilots are military officers. Due to North Koreas close affiliation with the soviets all airplanes in the fleet of Air Koryo are Russian models. Antonovs, Ilyushins, Tupolevs. During the Cold War Air Koryo flew to more than three dozen destinations within Korea and all over the world – nowadays there are only three regular international connections (Beijing three times a week, Shenyang twice a week and Vladivostok once a week) plus a couple of charter flights. In Europe Air Koryo is blacklisted since March 2006, though that ban was lifted four years later for two newly acquired Tupolev Tu-204s.
It was on board of one of those two machines that my fellow travelers and I started our trip to Pyongyang in Beijing. Some websites still recommend using Air China (or the 24 hour train…) to get to North Korea’s capital, but I would have chosen Air Koryo anyway if I would have been asked to choose. How often do you have the opportunity to fly Air Koryo?!
Interestingly enough our predominantly white Air Koryo plane was parked right next to a predominantly blue plane by Korean Air – the flag carrier and largest airline of South Korea. Since the Korean Air machine took off before we even boarded I had the great opportunity to take a photo of both machines at the same time when the Seoul bound machine was on its way to the runway. Two planes, one photo. It didn’t cross my mind at the time, but I am sure North Koreans would have loved the picture, them being all about one united Korea. (And so would have the dozen Christians wearing “A United Korea 4 The World” sweatshirts that boarded the plane with us. I seriously hope they were able to leave the country without running into trouble – they might love Korea, but (North) Korea doesn’t love missionaries. And those guys looked like they were on a mission from God…)
Air Koryo actually was the first positive surprise of my *trip to the DPRK*. After using *Ukraine International Airlines to Kiev* three years prior, my expectations on (former) communist airlines were as low as they can get; but the Tupolev Tu-204 was a perfectly fine modern plane with the usual seat spacing, the flight attendants were as friendly as they were beautiful (and they were gorgeous!) and the food was living up to international standards, too.
When checking in I was asking for a seat away from the wings to be able to look outside and maybe take a quick video secretly. At that point the photography situation was a bit up in the air (no pun intended…) – we were told that it’s okay to take photos on board, but not of the stewardesses; and nobody asked about video or footage through the windows. So I took a few quick snapshots until one of the other foreign travelers was shut down when he violated the instructions we got and took photos of a flight attendant… Even worse: After we all settled in and were ready to take off about a dozen Koreans boarded the plane and occupied seats all over the aircraft cabin. Just a coincidence? Or a way to keep an eye on the foreigners at a time when the official guides were still waiting for our arrival in Pyongyang? I felt a bit uneasy, but decided to give the rather young fella sitting next to me the benefit of the doubt. Which turned out to be right about an hour later. Lunch was just served and I was wondering if it was okay to take a photo of the meal – as we all know from Western media: Taking pictures most likely is a crime… So I slowly unwrapped all the small containers and before I could even start to eat my meal the guy in the neighboring seat pulled out his smart phone and took a photo himself. Easy going! The same situation a couple of minutes later. While I was wondering whether it was okay to take some photos of the landscape passing by (there could have been airports or train stations or military camps – or worse!) we were informed that we just entered Korean airspace – and all of a sudden everybody took photos, including our late arriving Koreans. Lesson learned: Don’t shove a lens into somebody’s face and you can take photos of pretty much everything you want…
Air Koryo’s home airport Pyongyang Sunan International Airport is as small as you think it is – two landing strips, one of them closed permanently. There are 10 regular international flights a week at Sunan (7 by Air Koryo, 3 by Air China), plus charter flights and some cargo flights – that’s it! There are no official statistics about flight movements within the DPRK, but I doubt that there are many, given the rather high cost of air transport and the regime’s problem to get fuel.
On the positive side: Immigration is a piece of cake. You show your filled out forms, your passport and your visa – and then you are in. No bag checks, no other bullshit. When you want to enter Japan on the other hand you get treated like a criminal as they take your finger prints and a photo. Every… friggin… time! I’m on my third Japanese long-term visa, I never ran into trouble, I always pay my taxes – nevertheless I get treated like a murder suspect every time I come back from an overseas trip… Welcome home! (Of course this treatment only applies to foreigners, Japanese people just waltz in…)
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