North Korea Wants To Launch International Flights And Open Up Airspace

Filed Under: Travel

It’s fascinating to see what’s going on with North Korea at the moment. In my opinion it’s too early to tell whether anything will actually change, or if the current situation is just grandstanding on Kim Jong-un’s part.

With Kim showing a new side (at least for now), it looks like it may have a positive impact on aviation.

The Straits Times reports on some interesting developments with North Korean aviation. Specifically, North Korea has submitted a request with the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) to open new international air routes. As of now Air Koryo (North Korea’s national airline, a proud Skytrax 1-star airline) only operates routes to a few Chinese cities. For that matter, those are the only scheduled flights operated to/from Pyongyang Airport. Air China flew there until late last year, though they abruptly canceled flights with just days notice, leaving Air Koryo as the airport’s only airline.

Till late last year, Air China flew to Pyongyang

Details haven’t yer been revealed regarding what destinations Air Koryo would like to fly to. Presumably they’re not looking at operating daily flights between Pyongyang and Washington, but rather I’d guess they’re looking at maybe operating flights to Russia or Hong Kong (let’s not make this a “One China” debate — for these purposes Hong KOng is considered a separate region). 😉

Perhaps even more interesting is that North Korea is reportedly willing to open their airspace (FIR, or flight information region) to South Korea. Many airlines avoid North Korean airspace (some by choice, others because they’re not allowed to use it), which wastes a ton of fuel and adds significant time to flights. If North Korea’s FIR is opened, it would save South Korean airlines about 15 million USD per year in gas alone.

Avoiding North Korean airspace on a Xiamen Air flight last year

I’m not really sure what to make all of this. Other airlines could already fly to North Korea if there were demand, but clearly there isn’t. I’m not sure what Kim hopes to get out of starting service to other countries (at a loss), other than prestige.

Don’t get me wrong, eventually I think there could be huge demand for traveling to North Korea, just as there has been for Americans traveling to Cuba. However, that wouldn’t just require North Korea being on better terms with other countries, but it would also more or less require a regime change in North Korea. You can’t hugely boost tourism while keeping North Koreans in the dark.

Arguably the best thing that could come out of this for North Korea is that they open their airspace to other airlines. They could charge expensive fees for the privilege (it would still be a win-win), and this would be a way for the country to generate significant revenue with virtually no downside.

But Air Koryo launching flights to more countries seems farfetched, at least at this point.

Where do you think Air Koryo wants to fly, and do you think North Korea will open their airspace?

(Featured image courtesy of Kristoferb)

  1. NK’s can’t afford to travel, so it’s wishy washy Euro’s that might. Maybe Frankfurt or London. NYC would be what Kim wants, but the visa process on both ends would be a nightmare. Typically after a peace agreement with Americans, there is a period of goodwill if the other side is serious, think Germany, Japan, Vietnam. If not, then like Cuba, Russia etc.

  2. Last summer when I flew Air Koryo from PEK to FNJ (Pyongyang), I saw there were Air Koryo flights going to Vladivostok, Russia a few times a week. I thought Russia and China were the only two countries Air Koryo flew to after the airline dropped its routes to Malaysia, Thailand, and Kuwait a few years ago.
    On my Air Koryo flight back in August 2017, it was packed full mostly by tourists, foreign workers, and a good number of North Korean elite (I just presumed that since they wore the Kim Jong Un pin.)
    I’d think Air Koryo would probably want to re-establish their ties with Kuwait, Thailand, and Malaysia (despite what happened in KL airport early last year). If sanctions are lifted, I’d imagine Air Koryo would want to get a more modern fleet as well.

  3. It would be great news if they decided to open air space to South Korean and Japanese airlines. Traditionally many flights to Northern China/Far East Russia and Mongolia take 60 to 90 minutes longer because they have to avoid DPRK air space (consider many of these flight#s could have only taken 60 minutes). Although I doubt any Japanese or Korean airlines would be brave enough to pass through NK’s air space.

    Beyond Beijing and Shenyang, Air Koryo has regular service to Vladivostok, seasonal service to Shanghai, nonregular service to Kuala Lumpur (until they murdered Kim Jong-un’s brother at KLIA), Bangkok, and Kuwait mostly for transporting their ex-pat workers for remittance. I remember they once planned to fly to Europe (presumably Moscow) with those new TU204s. However most of these routes stopped due to their nuclear and missile tests in the last few years.

  4. I think air koryo will want to operate more flights to Russia as well as flights to places like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam

  5. FOX has been doing some great reporting about the situation in North Korea. No doubt President Trump is handling this with grace & strength.

  6. Now that N.Koreans realize that they need desperate monetary funds..for what?..for finally feeding their population decently or another way of getting funds to maintain their stupid missiles politics!
    I had visited North Kora once in a group tour for 8 days..I was very curious and keen on seeing North Korea..but actually during the entire tour your are always escorted and monitored. We are not allowed to getbout on our own or leave the hotel unattended.They even looked the doors ofthe hotel entrance at night! When I saw impoverished locals and really malnourished, I begann questioning the sense of my trip. It was like seeing how bad the locals have and the tourists sit in their A/C bus, eat good food(comparing to what locals have) and in a way seems out of place. You asked who is actually sitting in a cage and being gazed?
    I do not know, if all these new options mean helping thebpopulation have a better life why not. Otherwise why help the regime get hard cash!

  7. Flew Air Koryo from Beijing to Pyongyang once in the early naughts. In no hurry to do it again. A foreign carrier would be a welcome addition. Don’t see anyone but KAL or Asiana doing it initially.

  8. I flew Peking Pyongyang a few years back business class Air Koryo. Plane was full. Awesome experience with officials in business class 🙂

    I hope they open up an ilyushing il96 route or so to Amsterdam. Would gladly take the maiden flight.

    North korea is on my list for November. 2nd visit. Private customized tour. I want to see some places not regular on the itinerary. This to some extend possible.

    And. I dont think the powers should
    Change. A bit of cumminism isnt bad.

  9. There has to be a lot going on behind the scenes that we know nothing about, so at this point I’d say all speculation, pro and con, positive and negative, is just wild guesses. As an absolute dictator, Kim could make changes fast if he wanted to. We just don’t know. In particular we don’t know what the Chinese are telling him.

  10. There is only one China. Pls remove Hong Kong for your post. you have been warned to the great leader.

  11. Gotta love it when someone who can’t spell “communism” says a bit of it isn’t bad…

  12. ChrisW,

    North Korea is a prison state. While I do think these talks are a step in the right direction, its still not going to change the day-to-day lives of those who live in DPRK. Visiting North Korea as a tourist is frankly immoral, as all you are doing is funneling money into the regime which only further helps them maintain power over their people, who live in some of the worst conditions imaginable, solely because their government is too kleptocratic and incompetent to have it any other way.

  13. @chasgoose
    Same people as you mentioned it was immoral visit Myanmar when there was a military regime. I am happy i did and people thank me for the visit as i did not stay in government
    facillites. After the opening the atmosphere hone and mass tourism was in. It os not the same anymore. Same with North Korea.So i give a dam… about moralist. You can stay home. Igo.

  14. Guys, they do actually have a website:
    You may need a VPN operating to access it. You can see schedules, destinations and even special fares. Personally, I want them to fly to Australia simply because of the cool factor of watching the latest tupolev fly into Sydney. Hopefully they’re in the process of establishing a frequent flyer program, perhaps called Klub Kim where you can move move up the status ladder from Worker to Dear Leader and finally Supreme Leader. As a hereditary dictatorship you’d probably have to be a relation of the leader to join…… 😉

  15. Yeah LOL, Lucky flying with Air Koryo and touring North Korea! ..we will probably have the next young American hostage in the news! Send one of the bunch who can survive at least some days..
    Sorry Lucky North Korea is not the Seychelles, it does not fit your tan!

  16. Mayor Garcetti should build an airport in Koreatown at international park so Air Koryo can launch daily service between Pyongyang and K-town. Air Koryo can lease an A330 from Sichuan Airlines.

    I hope the Air Koryo credit card will have a nice signup bonus.

  17. Any of the peanut gallery here Korean? I am. There is a bigger picture. They are poised to join the world and improve the living standard and human rights conditions for the first time in decades and millions will benefit.
    Politics and Trump-hatred be damned on this one…
    I watched Kim cross the border in total shock. I hope one day to tour a unified homeland and intern the ashes of my ancestors there. I’ll tournthr north and support them as best I can. Our inability to see things through the long-term lens of history and obesssiom with petty identity politics have dimmed the true goal: peace for the Hermit Kingdom and denuclearization.

  18. I will guess they will try to attract tourists from South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong initially. People with money. These countries are sympathetic in a sense.
    The rumour is that the Trump/Kim meeting will be in Singapore , seems possible, Kim can come by ship as Singapore unlikely to want an old Kyoro plane on the tarmac. Maybe close Sentosa, arrive by ship and close all Sentosa hotels and have one hotel each for North Korea, South Korea,China ,USA and observers ?

  19. I flew Air Koryo in 2007 from Beijing to Pyongyang. There were a LOT of military in the back of the plane behind a curtain. They took our cell phones at the airport and returned them to us upon departure four days later. Seats folded all the way forward, which was good news for a tall British man on the trip who needed to stretch his legs out.

    It’s a fascinating and disturbing place to visit. As others noted, you are always supervised/escorted. It’s hard to know what is “real” and what Is manufactured for your benefit. The more you try to figure out what is going on, he more opaque it becomes. It’s the closest thing you might imagine to seeing “1984” in real life. If you can go during the Mass Games (enormous synchronized performance), it’s one of the most amazing and even beautiful things you’ll ever see. The rest is interesting but grim. If nothing else, being in an urban place with zero signage (minus propaganda posters) is a thing to behold.

    I went with Koryo Tours, a British expat owned company based in Beijing. They were absolutely fantastic, as were our local guides. When I returned to Beijing and went out to a bar, I felt “free,” which tells you something.

    Nice place to visit. Wouldn’t want to live there. (But if you want to see a mind bending documentary about four US soldiers who did, seek out Crossing The Line.)

  20. Leaving the DPRK and all politics aside, my first reaction to the article (seriously) was based solely on this sentence: “Don’t get me wrong, eventually I think there could be huge demand for traveling to North Korea, just as there has been for Americans traveling to Cuba.”

    If Cuba is in such a HUGE demand, why have so many scheduled flights/routes been discontinued?

  21. How about the new Pyongyang-Havana route?
    Lots of planeloads of sun tanned gulag workers relaxing on the beach in Havana sipping a Cuba Libre in the workers’ paradise.

  22. “They took our cell phones at the airport and returned them to us upon departure four days later.”
    I’m curious: Did you mean taking the phones in Beijing or in Pyongyang?

  23. I bet paying NK for overflight rights violates international sanctions. Even if NK welcomes it, other countries might not want to get involved.

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