- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2008

SEOUL (AP) Air Koryo jets once traversed the skies of the Eurasian landmass, linking communist North Korea with airports in Cold War capitals as far afield as Moscow, Prague and the former East Berlin.

Nowadays, the aging Russian-built craft of the rickety North Korean airline mostly ply routes close to home, with flights beyond nearby Chinese cities and Russia’s Far East extremely rare.

To the casual observer, that might sound like a tale of decline and, in some ways, it undeniably is. But a closer look suggests a carrier possessed of a dogged resilience that has stayed aloft despite being the flagship of a nation beset with a dysfunctional economy.

Increasing travel by tourists, traders and government officials in recent years has ensured that existing Air Koryo flights are usually full.

The airline also has taken delivery of its first new jet in years. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, quoting diplomatic sources in China, reported Thursday that North Korea’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong-il, was likely to fly to Vietnam and China on the new plane.

Mr. Kim is widely believed to shun air travel. His previous trips abroad by luxurious special train were shrouded in secrecy and reports speculating on his destinations beforehand were not always accurate.

“The golden days are now,” Nick Bonner, who runs a Beijing-based company that arranges group tours and even independent trips for adventurous Western and Asian travelers to North Korea, said of Air Koryo. “They’re busier than ever.”

Mr. Bonner’s agency has seen a steady increase in visitors to North Korea, a country known more for political intolerance, devastating famine and nuclear saber-rattling than as a hot tourist destination.

In 1998, his Koryo Tours — which, despite being similarly named for an ancient Korean dynasty, is unrelated to the airline — escorted just 98 tourists to North Korea. The number doubled to 200 in 2006 and last year jumped to a still minuscule 1,100. Some of his customers also get into the country by train, a much longer trip.

Mr. Bonner said a round-trip ticket on Air Koryo between Beijing and Pyongyang costs $365 for economy and $621 for business class.

Demand these days is such that Air Koryo even has competition. Air China last month launched service between Beijing and Pyongyang.

As with much about North Korea, detailed information on its airline is difficult to confirm because of limited contacts with aviation officials and the general secretiveness of the regime.

Air Koryo now has just three regularly scheduled international routes. Domestic service is said to be virtually nonexistent.

It flies round trip three times a week between Pyongyang and Beijing and twice a week to the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, an important source of trade for North Korea.

The other is return service once a week to Vladivostok. A flight to Khabarovsk, another city in the Russian Far East, stopped in 2005. The airline also had flown to Bangkok and Macao in recent years.

Perhaps illustrative of Air Koryo’s improving fortunes, in December it acquired a twin-engine Tu-204-300 jet manufactured by Russia’s OAO Tupolev, adding to its fleet of other Tupolev, Antonov and Ilyushin jets and turboprops.

Tupolev mentions the deal on its Web site, though did not disclose financial terms when asked. Air Koryo did not respond to an e-mail sent to its Pyongyang office.

A non-North Korean with intimate knowledge of the airline, who refused to be identified, confirmed the deal, adding North Korean pilots were receiving training in Russia with the craft set to begin operations at the end of April.

“Obviously, they are making quite good business,” said Andrei Lankov, a Seoul-based Russian expert on North Korea, who is quick to point out that whatever success the airline may be having is not reflective of the country’s broader economy, which remains in shambles.

The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union dealt a severe blow to North Korea, shrinking its sources of trade and aid.

North Korea is said to have increasingly turned to shady ways of earning money. The United States contends the country has dealt drugs and counterfeited cigarettes and U.S. currency.

Bertil Lintner, an author of a book on the country’s ruling dynasty and an authority on illicit trade in Asia, wrote in 2003 that Air Koryo planes were spotted in Burma amid indications North Korea was supplying weapons.

He said in an interview that North Korean aircraft were also spotted in the country a couple of years ago, though it is not clear if they bore Air Koryo markings.

“It’s quite possible they were carrying weapons or personnel” to help Burma’s military regime construct tunnels under its new upcountry capital city, he said.

Though concerns about safety have been raised — Air Koryo is banned from flying in the European Union — the carrier has apparently had just one major accident, a crash in West Africa in 1983, when the airline was known under a different name.

The plane, an Ilyushin 62 carrying 23 people, was en route to Conakry, the capital of Guinea, on an “international non-scheduled passenger” flight, when it went down in the Fouta Djall mountains, according to the Aviation Safety Network Web site. All aboard perished.

Air Koryo made its first flight to South Korea in August 2000 to ferry 100 separated family members for temporary reunions with long-lost relatives in the South. The airline has made occasional flights to South Korea for special purposes as relations have warmed in recent years.

Passengers who have flown the airline enjoy recounting the clunky service and unusual amenities including the “Koryo Burger” available on some flights. In-flight entertainment, a frequent-flier program and alliance membership are unavailable.

The airline’s quirkiness, though, is a selling point.

“If you fly with Air Koryo, the tour starts when you pick up your ticket,” said Mr. Bonner, who estimates he has taken 360 flights on the airline.

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