North Korea takes off again

It has been with a Russian built Tupolev.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
05 September 2023 Tuesday 10:33
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North Korea takes off again

It has been with a Russian built Tupolev. The airport of Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, has recovered its international flights after 46 months. This time without commercial aviation has been unprecedented, even for one of the most politically and economically isolated countries in the world. The pandemic sealed the borders of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in January 2020 and it was then that the unique Air Koryo, North Korea's only aviation company, operated its last link between the Chinese and North Korean capitals.

Flight JS151 was the one that broke the air isolation of Kim Jong Un's country when it took off on August 22 for Beijing. It was a flight of just over 90 minutes, received with expectation by various Chinese media, the main ally of the North Korean regime. The plane in charge of carrying out the flight was one of the airline's Tupolev 204, a Russian-made device very similar to the American Boeing 757, although only 90 units of this model, still designed in Soviet times, have been manufactured, while the American have built more than a thousand.

This Tupolev, capable of transporting up to 222 passengers, twelve in business class and the rest in economy, represents 25% of the current operating fleet of Air Koryo, made up of another twin engine and two Antonov AN-148. The second was the device in which Korea Central Television recorded the supreme leader at his command after his handover. In the video, with classic KCTV music drowning out ambient sound, Kim appears in the commander's seat to the left of the cockpit. Recorded in a very close shot, the leader performs a series of turns and other maneuvers, wanting to demonstrate what is common in the country's propaganda: there is no machine that Kim does not know how to handle with skill.

Until January 2020, these four units were in charge of covering the small international flight network that had a total of three destinations: Shenyang and Beijing, both in China, as well as Vladivostok, in Russia.

In an appearance before the local media, Wang Wenbin, spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, celebrated the reopening of the line with Beijing and announced that Air Koryo would fly to Vladivostok again, news that, in its usual philosophy of providing little information and with drops, it has not been given since North Korea. The Russian city, a regular destination for North Korean commercial aviation due to its proximity, earned a reputation for mystery last century, between the late 1950s and 1991. At that time, the Kremlin made it a city closed to foreign visitors for Host the Pacific Fleet of the Soviet Navy.

The history of Air Koryo goes back precisely to the good times of the USSR. Originally it was a mixed Soviet-Korean company to fly between Pyongyang and Moscow with intermediate stopovers. For four decades, the corporation carried the name of Korean Airways and its planes reached Eastern Bloc capitals such as Sofia, Prague, Belgrade and East Berlin. The collapse of the Soviet Union also wiped out all these links, and the airline, renamed Air Koryo in 1992, significantly reduced its international presence. In the western sphere, its longest-range aircraft, the Ilyushin IL-62, were only seen in Switzerland, landing with some frequency at the Kloten airport (Zurich) at the end of the last century. In 2018 and thanks to the testimonies of classmates, it emerged that those nineties were times in which the current leader of North Korea studied in Switzerland, although he did so under another identity: Pak Un, son of an employee of the North Korean embassy in Bern, so the flights of those Ilyushin from Pyongyang to Zurich could be related to the presence of Kim Jong Il's son in the country.

It is very difficult to have completely reliable information about the airline due to the secrecy of the country, even more so in a matter considered sensitive such as aviation, which, even though it is commercial, is completely militarized. In 2006, the Department of Mobility and Transport of the European Commission included Air Koryo in the list of airlines that are prohibited from flying over all the states of the European Union with one caveat: the two Tupolev 204 could land at any airport. European, although that is a very distant hypothesis.