Recent satellite imagery examined by 38 North, a North Korea-focused research publication, reveals a surge in maintenance activities at Sunan International Airport, Pyongyang, involving Air Koryo’s fleet. This upswing, amid whispers of North Korea possibly reopening its borders for tourism and the return of China’s ambassador to Pyongyang, might signal Air Koryo’s imminent resumption of passenger air service after a three-year hiatus.
Air Koryo is a fascinating airline
I’ve been interested in Air Koryo for a while, primarily because it’s the flag carrier of the most isolated country on earth and because, relatedly, stringent economic sanctions mean its fleet comprises legacy Russian and Ukrainian aircraft that are no longer in widespread use. Its flight routes and schedules are also subject to the country’s tightly controlled policies, making it one of the least accessible airlines. Sam Chui reviewed an Air Koryo flight between Beijing and Pyongyang in 2016 but, other than that, I’ve seen virtually no firsthand reports of the airline in the last ten years.
Air Koryo’s fleet
Nearly all of Air Koryo’s planes were grounded at Sunan Airport throughout the pandemic. Only sporadic domestic flights took place, while regular international passenger services were halted for three years.
Prior to North Korea’s border closure in early 2020, automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) archives and aviation enthusiast photos reveals that three aircraft from Air Koryo’s fleet were responsible for nearly all recorded international flights:
- Antonov An-148, P-671, often flew the Pyongyang-Macau route and was spotted in Dalian, Beijing Capital, Shenyang-Taoxian, and Vladivostok in 2019.
- Tupolev Tu-204, P-632, was a regular at Beijing Capital in 2019 and was recorded in Vladivostok, Shanghai-Pudong, Jinan Yaoqiang International, and Shenyang-Taoxian.
- Another Tupolev Tu-204, P-633, was seen in Beijing Capital, Vladivostok, Shanghai-Pudong, Wuhan Tianhe, and Shenyang-Taoxian in 2019.
- Air Koryo’s Ilyushin IL-62s were also spotted overseas, albeit less frequently.
The rest of the fleet mostly served domestic routes, and due to limited ADS-B coverage over North Korea, some flights might have gone unnoticed.
Sign of resumption
An unusual level of maintenance work involving a large number of aircraft within the past few weeks hints at possible preparations for Air Koryo resuming regular commercial operations. This maintenance, spotted using satellite imagery by 38 North has unfolded as follows:
- On May 8, a Tupolev Tu-134 and a Tu-154 could be seen in the maintenance section at Sunan. The Tu-154 seems to have been there since at least April 16. This lengthy stay is characteristic of Air Koryo’s maintenance patterns over the past year.
- Joining them in the maintenance zone were two helicopters and three small planes that have been stored there for an extended period. From the western parking zone, an Ilyushin IL-76 was seen moving northward, but its ultimate destination remains a mystery. All the other aircraft were found in their usual parking spots.
- By May 10, both the Tu-134 and IL-76 returned to their parking spots, leaving the Tu-154 still in the maintenance zone. All other aircraft were parked in their standard positions.
- On May 16, the Tu-154 was relocated to the eastern part of the maintenance zone and accompanied by a Tupolev Tu-204 and Antonov An-148. These latter two are the models most often seen on international flights. Except for these three planes, all others were in their standard parking spots.
- On May 21, the Tu-154 remained in the maintenance zone and both Tu-204s were observed. These Tu-204s are among Air Koryo’s most advanced aircraft and were integral to the airline’s routes to China before the pandemic. All other aircraft were in their usual parking spots.
All of this maintenance is by no means a guarantee of an imminent reboot of operations, but it’s worth noting that there have been reports over the past few weeks of preparations for reopening road freight and tourism.
Though I don’t plan on flying Air Koryo or visiting North Korea anytime soon (it’s actually a crime to visit North Korea as an American), the airline has arguably the most unique assortment of passenger aircraft anywhere in the world, and it’ll be interesting to see whether they return to the skies.