Where's Kim Jong-Un? North Korea's leader returns, but what does it mean for Air Koryo?

With the recent disappearance of Kim Jong-Un, we took a look at how the state-owned national flag carrier of North Korea- Air Koryo, is being maintained.

North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un has made his first public appearance in five weeks, ending a prolonged absence that was fuelling speculation about his health and control over the country.  The country's official news agency confirmed this week that Kim ‘gave field guidance’ on October 13, 2014 at the newly-built Wisong Scientists Residential District highlighting numerous images of the leader.

Since his last public appearance at a concert on September 3, 2014, his whereabouts have been unclear and theories materialised such as Mr Kim was suffering ill-health to him being held victim by a political coup.  Recent visitors to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) had highlighted a notable change in atmosphere in the country since a previous visit two years earlier, suggesting a change could be on the horizon for the DPRK.

And a change in political management could finally enable Air Koryo to develop its network into international markets, after years of bans and repression from its previous dictatorships.

Air Koryo, the state-controlled airline which was originally founded in 1950, currently holds a fleet of predominantly Russian-made aircraft, with Beijing and Shenyang in north-eastern China, the most frequent destinations. However, the airline is banned from all EU countries, and is the only airline in the world to hold a one-star rating, according to the airline ranking service, Skytrax. The airline, based at Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang is the only airline among 681 worldwide airlines to receive the lowest star-rating.

The ban on landing in Europe does not apply to the airline’s two relatively new Tupolev Tu-204 planes, but so far nothing has been done to establish routes to any European country, and there are currently no plans in place to do so either. As far as modernisation goes, the airline has also instated an Antonov An-148s, but it is unclear as to whether the airline is expanding its fleet further.

The airline was first established under the name SAKAO (Soviet-North Korean Airline) as a joint North Korean – Soviet concern in order to connect Pyongyang to Moscow, but was suspended during the Korean War until 1953.

The airline was re-established as UKAMPS and started operations in 1955. It was placed under the control of the Civil Aviation Administration of Korea and later changed its name to CAAK in 1970. It began operations with Lusinov Li-2, Antonov An-2 and Ilyushin Il-12 aircraft and during the 1960s, Ilyushin Il-14 and Ilyushin Il-18 turboprops were added to the fleet. 

In 1975, the first Tupolev Tu-154B tri-jet was delivered for services from Pyongyang to Prague, Berlin and Moscow. However, the aircraft did not have sufficient range, so had to land twice before reaching its final destination.The Tu-154 fleet was expanded in 1980 and operation began, allowing CAAK to operate a non-stop direct flight to Moscow for the first time.

In 1992 CAAK became Air Koryo, but the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism in Eastern-Europe caused a reduction in international services. The first regular charter flights between North and South Korea began operation in 2002, but terminated a mere 12-months later in 2003 due to the continuous tension between the two countries.

Despite the EU’s concerns for safety after the European Civil Aviation Authority branded the airline to have “serious safety deficiencies”, Air Koryo actually boasts a fairly sturdy history of safety, with its last fatal crash in 1983, when a plane smashed into the Fouta Djall Mountains in Guinea, in West Africa, killing all 23 people on board.

Although the fleet is older than most, and far from the modernised standard of many western carriers, Air Koryo’s fleet are allegedly well kept and maintained- they even updated their uniform last year. There are reportedly no plans to retire IL-62, 154 or IL-18, and some pilots believe that the aircraft will serve for a further 10-15 years.

However, the airline’s safety record could be somewhat misleading, with a minimal amount of information available for the performance of its domestic operations. Sure enough, any local air disasters would undoubtedly be wiped out by North Korea’s tightly controlled media.

Air Koryo definitely provide a distinct service in comparison to Western carriers, and would prove an experience for any passenger. Most recently, the carrier have begun the removal of any literature in a foreign language at customs- such as guide books, and return them to passengers on their way out.

However, it seems as though the economy has remained sturdy, particularly in Pyongyang where there seem to be a lot more cars on the streets, unofficial black markets are profiting, and there are some growing middle class scenes.

In October 2012 the airline launched its first online booking service. The website www.airkoryo.com.kp/en promises "easier, quicker, reliable booking and ticketing services”, and clearly shows an advance in the Air Koryo’s attempt to match more up to date airlines. However, it received little appraisal after users reported slow response speeds, and the inability to actually book a ticket online- only receiving the following message: “We cannot find any flights for your flight schedule. Please change your schedule and try again.”

Data provided by OAG

Although Air Koryo is an airline with little exposure to foreign markets, it has been able to survive for a number of years. As the data above suggests, the routes to Beijing and Valdivostok are most certainly a powerful aspect of the airline's continued service.

NOTE: The videos in this story are kindly supplied by respected aviation photographer Sam Chui who joined the recent JTS North Korea Aviation Tour and show him flying on an Ilyushin Il-18 to Samjiyon; a sightseeing tour around Mount Paektu (birthplace of Kim Jong-Un), then a return flight to Pyonyang on the Il-18, the oldest aircraft in the Air Koryo fleet; and a flight on an Antonov An-148, the newest arrival at the state-owned carrier.


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