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North Korea—it would be great as a reality
show, but it’s less great as reality.
As much as this country likes to pretend that
the rest of the world is made up exclusively
of brainwashed heathens living in hell-scape
garbage fire countries, sometimes certain
North Koreans, special enough to get a hall
pass, need to get out, and sometimes other
people go there to experience the dictator
Now, there is a train to the DPRK from Russia
and China, but honestly, what are trains good
for… other than low-cost, long distance,
time-efficient, economically stimulating,
carbon minimal, socially egalitarian, death-reducing
Nothing, because they don’t have wings.
That’s why North Korea has its own extra
special, tiny, terrible, airline… and here’s
some boring history, made possible by my declining
audience retention statistics.
Back in the 50’s, the USSR was North Korea’s
sugar daddy, and so the airline was first
established to fly to the eastern bit of the
Soviet Union so that people could connect
onto Aeroflot services to Moscow.
In the early days, they flew exclusively Soviet
planes, which sometimes didn’t crash, and
mostly focused on flights to the USSR and
Eventually, though, they got some big boy
Ilyushin Il-62 and Tupolev Tu-154’s, which,
surprisingly, are not the names of toaster
models but rather planes that could fly all
the way to Eastern Europe.
That meant they could finally fly the crucial
non-stop route of Pyongyang to Moscow.
They also eventually added some flights going
all the way to some of the other Soviet united
places like East Germany and Bulgaria.
But then the USSR became USS not, North Korea
and Russia’s relationship diminished, and
Air Koryo started flying to some definitively
As recently as 2010, they were flying to far
flung destinations like Zurich, Budapest,
and Prague, but then, the DPRK’s flag carrier
ran into two major issues.
One was that they were added to the prestigious,
“Airlines Banned in the EU” list meaning
that, for the most part, they could no longer
fly through, to, or from most of Europe and
two was that, especially in the past decade,
a whole host of sanctions were imposed on
North Korea by both individual nations and
the United Nations.
These sanctions, preventing all UN member
states from conducting almost all types of
trade with North Korea, mean that there’s
barely any economic activity with the country
so there’s little reason for people to travel
Nowadays, Air Koryo is more modest in size
compared to its former glory.
They fly to just five destinations—Vladivostok,
Shenyang, Beijing, Shanghai, and they just
recently started a new route to Macau in August,
2019 to allow the small number of North Korean
elites to get to this gambling hub for some
good old fashioned sinning.
Since this longest flight is only three hours
long, they don’t have to deal with some
of the complications that would arise from
their crew liking some of their layover cities
a little too much since they don’t have
to have any overnight layovers.
They do, however, have plenty of complications
arising from operating from one of the most
sanctioned countries on earth.
These sanctions have long prevented them from
purchasing Boeing or Airbus planes so they
bought Soviet or Russian built planes, but
then North Korea accidentally pressed the
big red, “sanction me more,” button.
On November 28, 2017, North Korea launched
a ballistic missile that landed uncomfortably
close to Japan and, in response, the UN dropped
the mother of all sanction packages outlined
in this bad boy document—UN Resolution 2397.
This resolution resolved, among other things,
that all UN members states would, “prohibit
the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer
to the DPRK, of all transportation vehicles.”
It clarifies that this includes everything
between HS codes 86 and 89, which are codes
used by customs organizations, and if you
pull up HS codes 86 through 89, you’ll see
that that includes, among other things, locomotives,
tractors, tanks, baby carriages, buoys, and
Therefore, since that’s a United Nations
sanction, that means that North Korea can’t
buy aircraft from, let me pull up my map,
ummm, these countries.
They could always buy from, like, Kosovo.
They’re not a UN member.
I wonder how their aircraft manufacturing
industry is… not that Kosovo is a country…
or not a country… or part of a country…
or not part of a country… just forget I
ever mentioned Kosovo.
Anyway, what this all means is that Air Koryo
can only operate aircraft it had pre-2017
and those were almost all old Russian, Ukrainian,
or Soviet planes.
UN Resolution 2397 specifically allows the
DPRK to buy spare parts for their passenger
planes, presumably to be sure they don’t
fall out of the sky, so that’s not an issue,
but many of their planes are old, and only
getting older, that’s how time works, so
their lack of plane buying ability certainly
is becoming more and more of a problem.
While plenty of countries regularly violate
the sanctions in secret (*cough* Russia,)
it would certainly raise some questions if
North Korea just suddenly started flying around
a shiny new Russian jet, I’d imagine.
UN Resolution 2270 also bans all sales of
aviation fuel to the DPRK, but it specifically
includes an exemption for fuel used for passenger,
It does, however, warn its members to only
sell the exact amount an aircraft needs to
get from, in the example of Russia, Vladivostok,
to Pyongyang, and back to Vladivostok—no
more that could sneakily make its way into
a military jet, you know, somehow.
Perhaps the craziest bit about Air Koryo,
though, is that you can book a flight on their
website, just like any other airline—it’s
The reception when you get there—well, that
might be less than warm.
Of course, on their rickety Russian jets,
Air Koryo lets you experience aviation’s
past but, if you want to see what flying will
be like in the future, you should watch, “Into
the Skies”— a new episode of the Curiosity
Stream original series, “Speed.”
This covers how aircraft design will change
to cope with a time not far off when 10 billion
passengers will fly each year.
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