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Air Koryo North Korea’s Connection to the World

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Air Koryo North Korea’s Connection to the World

Air Koryo North Korea’s Connection to the World
June 16
15:17 2016

Published in January 2015 issue

By Charles Kennedy

The flag carrier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), more commonly known as North Korea, is Air Koryo (JS/KOR). Charles Kennedy tells the story of the airline’s history, its present-day operations, and its very unusual aviation tourism niche.


Japan’s colonial possessions, including Korea, were divided among the victors of World War Two, creating a U.S.-sponsored South Korea and a Soviet-sponsored, communist North Korea, whose formal name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The Korean War broke out, after five years of partition, when North Korea tried to reunify the country by military means in 1950. After three years of fighting, with major participation by the U.S. and China and the loss of over two million lives, the only result was a ceasefire at the 38th Parallel; ironically this border line had been the starting point of the war. A peace treaty has never been signed and, technically, a state of war continues to exist after more than sixty years.

The politics of this stalemate has made the DPRK one of the least visited and least understood countries in the world. Although visitor numbers are very low— about 25,000 foreign entries to the country in 2013, including 20,000 Chinese nationals—North Korea nonetheless relies on its flag carrier to connect to the world, much like any other country.


The airline started life in 1945, as SOKAO, an acronym that translates to “Soviet-North Korean Airline.” SOKAO flew to the Chinese capital city of Beijing and to the Russian cities of Vladivostok and Chita, using Lisunov Li-2s and Antonov An-2s aircraft. Its services were terminated for the duration of the Korean War. After the ceasefire, the dormant entity was taken over by the Ministry of Communications and renamed UKAMPS, adding Ilyushin Il-12s and Il-14s. An additional Il-14 was given to President Kim Il Sung by Soviet leader Stalin for use as a head-of-state aircraft. Today, this aircraft, registration simply “535”, is preserved in a huge indoor space at the International Gift Exhibition outside Pyongyang, following a year of display on the ramp at Pyongyang in 2012.

In 1966, the airline acquired its first Antonov An-24, which was followed by two more from the factory in Kiev. These durable twin-prop workhorses remain in service today, serving remote towns in North Korea on tourist charters and government trips.

In 1969, UKAMPS expanded, to become a true long-haul carrier, with four-engine propjet Ilyushin Il-18s, which, for the first time, made service to Moscow possible. The I1-18s even served European points beyond Moscow, within the sphere of socialist countries, such as Sofia in Bulgaria, Belgrade in Yugoslavia, and East Berlin in the Democratic Republic of Germany. The furthest from base a Korean Il-18 is known to have flown is Havana, Cuba.

In 1975, the airline was renamed Chosonminhang, “Choson” means Korea, “Minhang” means “Airways”; in English it became known as CAAK, short for Civil Aviation Authority of Korea, in the style of China’s then flag carrier CAAC. This was just in time to receive its first jetliner, a Tu-154B, opening jet service to Moscow and beyond, although the B model of the Tu-154 was not a true long hauler, having to make fuel stops in Irkutsk and Novosibirsk.

The first Ilyushin Il-62M, P-885, was delivered in 1979, opening non-stop jet service to Moscow and more frequent services to East  Berlin and Sofia. This type became the airline’s flagship for the next three decades, serving trunk routes to Moscow and Beijing; a dedicated aircraft, P-618, became the head-of-state transport.

In 1982, the airline suffered its only fatal accident when an Il-62M, registered P-889, crashed in mountainous terrain in Guinea at the end of a long flight on a government trade misión from Pyongyang to Conakry, the capital city of the West African nation. The cause is not publicly known, although it is assumed to be pilot error, possibly compounded by crew fatigue.

In 1984, the airline received a pair of Tupolev Tu-134s, P-813 and P-814. P-813 was the first to be delivered and was personally inspected by President Kim Il Sung upon its arrival in Pyongyang. Among the last Tu-134s to be built, they were mostly used for local trips to Vladivostok in Russia and provincial Chinese cities, such as Shenyang in Manchuria, while the Il-62Ms covered Beijing and further afield.

While jet-capable runways in the provinces of North Korea exist, there have not always been scheduled domestic flights, mostly due to the short distances involved, which made train travel a more viable option. The An-24s and Tu-134s were called upon to operate to North Korean destinations, such as Sondok, serving the industrial city of Hamhung, and Samjiyon, serving the Mount Paektu region, mostly on an ad-hoc basis.  Recently, however, Air Koryo has published schedules for domestic flights for the first time in a long while.

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Another rebrand came in 1993, when the airline was given its current name, Air Koryo, taken from the ancient Koryo dynasty that ruled the peninsula in the years 918–1392 AD. However, this name change was followed by the most difficult time in North Korea’s history, coinciding with both the death of President Kim Il Sung, in July 1994, and the “Arduous March” of the mid-to late-90s. Famine and hardship were caused by the disappearance of the economic constellation of socialist nations that followed the demise of the Soviet Union and of its European satellites. This hardship was exacerbated by serious flooding in the North Korean countryside, which destroyed crops essential for the survival of the population.

With the dawning of the new century, the situation in North Korea gradually began to improve and orders were placed for a pair of new modern aircraft, Tupolev Tu-204s, to replace the Il- 62Ms in frontline service. One was a standard -100 and the other a rare short body -300 “SP”. The Tu-204-300 is unusual because, while all -300s (eleven were built) are six meters (19 ft.) shorter  than the -100 baseline to extend range and performance, this particular one (and one other) were modified from the -100 in a major surgical operation, removing two barrels from the fuselage and resetting the hours on the airframe to zero.

In 2013, Air Koryo received an An-148- 100 from Antonov, once a Soviet design bureau and, since 1991, a stand-alone airframe manufacturer in post-USSR independent Ukraine. The An-148 is a regional jet with a striking resemblance to the British Aerospace BAe 146, but with two Ivchenko Progress D-436 engines instead of the 146’s four Lycomings. At one point, it was announced that Air Koryo had ordered two more, one An-148 and one stretched An-158, but those orders were cancelled and the aircraft not taken up.

Around the same time, in 2013, Air Koryo stopped operating “old” Russian hardware (the Il-62Ms, Tu-134s and Tu- 154Bs) on passenger service to foreign civilian airports. Since then, the pair of Tu-204s and the An-148 have operated all international passenger flights. The fleet that has been relegated to domestic and charter service has a new waving flag on the tail, while the international fleet retains the more sober “straight” representation of the flag.

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In recent years, Air Koryo has opened scheduled routes to Asian ports such as Bangkok and Macau, but without lasting success, so these services have been discontinued. One destination that is showing staying power is the twice- weekly rotation to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur for trade and tourism. The other long haul service out of Pyongyang is to Kuwait, with a technical stop in Pakistan, supplying labor to Kuwaiti construction projects.

It is worth mentioning that airline rating website Skytrax reserves a one (out of five) star rating for Air Koryo alone. In fact, service is always gracious, soft-spoken and kind, with a hot meal, usually a hamburger, and drinks served on all international sectors; imagine that in the West. Air Koryo’s poor rating does not represent the passenger experience at all, but is because some Skytrax checkboxes remain unfulfilled; for instance, the airline does not have a website.

Nonetheless, air travel is at a low level in North Korea. The sum of the airline’s scheduled operations is a near-daily service to Beijing, a couple of flights a week to Shenyang and Vladivostok, plus Kuala Lumpur and Kuwait. The only foreign carrier at Pyongyang is Air China, calling a couple of times a week with Boeing 737 service from Beijing. This adds up to only a couple of flights a day in total. For periods of the day, the passenger terminal is unattended, a fascinating contrast to airports serving other Asian capitals.

The original terminal, which had stood since the 1960s, was taken down piece by piece in 2012, to be replaced by a temporary terminal, while a new, permanent facility is being built. This is now almost complete and due for a November 2014 opening. Its appearance is that of an impressive and modern glass-fronted complex that will use jetways for the first time.

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At odds with North Korea’s media image of an unwelcoming and officious country, Air Koryo has thrown its doors open to aviation enthusiasts since 2012. Juche Travel Services is a tour operator with offices in London and Beijing, run by a Brit who was sufficiently aviationliterate to know that Air Koryo’s lineup of old Russian jets, which he had seen when passing through Pyongyang airport, would be of interest to aviation enthusiasts. After months of planning, the first tour went on sale for May 2012. The line-up of types was so mouthwatering that prospective clients were hesitant to book, suspecting an Internet scam. Juche Travel Services’ boss had to resort to hosting a dinner in London to prove he was a real person and to explain that, yes, this was really going to happen!

The first tour set the template for the 16 that have since followed, including three German-language ones. The tour consisted of a round-trip to Samjiyon or Orang on the Il-18, with a night stop at the destination and a couple of daytrips to Sondok airport, which serves Hamhung on the Tu-134, Tu-154 and An-24. Subsequent tours have added the superrare Ilyushin Il-76 cargo lifter, of which Air Koryo operates three. The second tour, in June 2012, offered flights aboard the pair of government VIP Mil Mi-17 helicopters that, after a hiatus, reappeared on the menu in 2014.

Since the Il-62 stopped flying on schedules to Beijing, it has been employed for a local sightseeing flight. On the departures board in the terminal, the destination is listed as Pukchang, which is the name of the radio beacon in the Korean countryside to which the flight heads out before returning to its origin for landing after about forty minutes in the air. After takeoff, participants on these special flights have the run of the aircraft, taking pictures of interior fittings, full cabin views and wing shots. While the cockpit door stays shut in flight, the front office is open to photography after landing.

On the ramp at each port of call, the facility is open to the group to explore and photograph. One highlight is that, when the Il-18 flies up to Samjiyon, a picnic lunch for each passenger is brought along. Imagine sitting on the tarmac at a remote airfield on the NK side of the North Korea-China border, enjoying lunch and a local beer, with a 1968-vintage Ilyushin prop liner parked in front of you for company.


2015 will be the sixtieth anniversary of the DPRK and Air Koryo. For the aviation tours, there will be some special events scheduled and a new terminal building to experience. Despite the rhetoric in the Korean Peninsula remaining heated and hostile, its future hard to predict, and the reunification of the two Koreas seemingly a long way off, Air Koryo reliably serves North Korea with its pair of modern Tupolev Tu-204s, its sole Antonov An-148 and an offer of a warm welcome to all who fly there.


About Author

Charles Kennedy

Charles Kennedy

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