Flying into North Korea – Air Koryo Airline Review

In North Korea you can get in both by air and by train or by flight with Air Koryo their national airline company. There are other interesting ways to enter like by motorcycle. A group of new zealanders entered and crossed all North Korea by motorcycle, two years ago. The problem is that I saw their story in the main english magazine in DPRL; a propaganda one. But it took them a lot of month of preparation ( visa, email, etc). The americans can only enter and exit North Korea by plane only; they can not take the train, for instance.

Blacklist Airlines – You have probably heard of blacklisted airlines, which  not allowed to fly to Europe . But this does not mean that they do not fly in other areas. Air Koryo was blacklisted by the European Union. Right now the company is allow to operate flights into Europe only with one carrier: Tupolev Tu 204. Still, remains one of the powerest airlines in the world, according to Qatar Airways, for example tops the ranking!

Air Koryo destinations are  towards China (Beijing , Shenyang ) and Russia (Vladivostok ). A new route was opened in March 2014 ; Kuwait via Islamabad (Pakistan ). The Pyongyang-Berlin route is still pending approval from the European Union. But do not think that the European Union will agree anytime soon.

Flights from Beijing to Pyongyang (DPRK) are scheduled daily,except Fridays.My flight – JS152 , took off at 12.55 and arrived on time in Pyongyang at 16.00 (local time) .

Air Koryo J152


Air Koryo fleet is composed of Russian aircrafts : Antonov An- 148, Ilyushin Il- 62M , Tupolev Tu- 154, Tu-204/214 .

This was one my biggest fear: how old would be  the aircraft that I fly with? The age of an airplane does not matter that much. What is more important is its maintenance. With the embargo imposed to North Korea, I don’t know how the spares are. If there are any..

The “chosen” plane  for me was a Tupolev Tu- 204. Build in 1993 (ie 21 years) and part of the Air Koryo fleet since 1997. No major accident so far with this aircraft.

How do you book flights ? Simple. You are not in charge of the your booking process. The  travel agency will handle everything for you: from the visa, to plane tickets and the ground services in North Korea. The website of active since 2012 and booking can be made online, it seems. I only once succeeded to see the price. And it was about $300 round trip. Right now it seems their is a bug on their website and the price for a round trip ticket from Beijing to Pyongyang is $0. We will never see that kind of offer! In the end, the final price was $9, only the tax fare.

So I think that Air Koryo is one of the few companies that can not be found in search metasearch sites of airline tickets .

Air Koryo Ticket

Electronic ticket ? A good joke: even for  North Korea. I think the term internet does not exist in North Korea. They do have a kind of intranet system ( about 5500 website carefully selected and run only by the state).

Which is interesting is that the website is registred in South Korea, usually named by the North, “The American’s Puppets”. And it was the first time when I flew without seeing my plane ticket! Its like flying into a Parallel Universe!

Air Koryo Servers

Check in at the airport – Option for online check-in? Maybe in 10 years. Special counter at the airport  for business class? NOT. Must go 3 hours before the departure time to the airport? The flight would be too crowded and you might not have time to check in? NOT.

Flights to North Korea depart from the Beijing International Airport, Terminal One; terminal which serves domestic, HK and Macao flights. I was a bit confused at the terminal and I went to an information desk to ask information about my flight. Informed  the 2 girls at the desk my country destination and the flight number but they couldn’t find it! It was like going to nowhere. In the end I managed to find out which counter it was. The return to  communist was almost done@!

The check in lasted less than 30 second. Handled my passport, put the baggage to be weighed and received my visa and the boarding pass.The visa is not stamped on your passport; it’s just a piece of paper with your name and your visa number. And other informations are only in Korean. At the end, if you exist safe and sound from North Korea, you are not allowed to keep it! I did not get the reason behind that decision!

I was the only person at the check in. I was like flying with a personal jet! All for me!

Let’s fly !

Gate 9 would be the last place where I might have been seen alive! But in the end everything went as planned and I managed to survive North Korea! There was no one at Gate 9. Next to us, there was a KLM flight departing to Amsterdam and about 200 people. Again, I was feeling privileged!

As the departure time was approaching so the persons flying to North Korea were. In total we were 10 tourist and maybe another 20 koreans and up to 5 chinese. So, half of the plane was empty and I was able to pick my own window seat even if on my boarding pass had another number. But all did so, from our group!

10 years ago low Cost flight were not that common in Europe and for me flying was an expensive mean of transportation. And we did travel more by bus. We were heading home with our baggage full of jeans, clothes, CD, cigarettes and gold from Istanbul. The buses were so full that people hardly fit anymore.

Even if the plane was half empty there was no space in the compartiments. All the koreans were having 3 to 4 bags, each. And all were full with Camel cigarettes. All to be sold in North Korea. This koreans were privileged to have the right, in the first place to exist the country. And secondly to be able to enter DPRK with illicit products. There was a lady close to me with a stack of euros. There were more than 3000 euro carrying with here!

The same thing happened 4 years ago during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Hanoi. The plane was so full with bagages, from the vietnamese workers that were returning home from Malaysia, that it was on the edge not to take off! Never in my entire life, had I experience something like that!

Air Koryo - inside the plane

Somehow, during almost of my flights and I have more than 50 or maybe 100 at this stage of my traveling life, my seat is located very close to the engine. This time was the same. But it was the worse experience ever! The noise, at least at the beginning was very loud. I only wanted to land safe in Pyongyang. And I congratulated myself for taking the train route back to China!

The pilotin was also very poor. I don’t know have many years of experience he had but at some point I think I would have piloted the plane better than him! When he changed the flight direction it was like i….

In Flight Service – Air Koryo

As I previously said, did not get any paper or electronic ticket for this flight. So I did not know how much the limit for the baggage was or if I was allowed a hand baggage! Had both and probably exceeded a bit the limit but no one cared about it.

Again, if you are a vegetarian, you can not choose your food on the flight. Actually you don’t have too many option. There is only one: a hamburger as your meal! Definitely the worst hamburger I have ever eaten in my entire life! In the end I managed to eat it all cause I was a bit hungry. Now I was scared not to start the first day in North Korea with a stomach pain! Almost 8 months in Africa and no problem; not even a day in DPRK and already in trouble?

The drink? Even worse than the hamburger! My advice is to skip the meal in the airplane. And don’t be afraid, you won’t starve to death in North Korea! Unfortunately tourists are treated like kings while the real people are starving:(.

Air Koryo - the meal


In flight entertainment? I would rather say: Korean Karaoke imposed! During the whole flight, on the LCD screen, North Korea patriotic songs were showed! Its nice to hear one or maybe 2 songs! At some point I lost my patience and tried to focus on the geographic landscape outside the window!

The north Korean Karaoke


I had pretty amazing landscapes view on various landings. Like the landing over the Victoria Lake at sunset in Entebbe. Or the night landing over the huge city of Cairo. Here, everything was brown and grey. The landing was poor too. The plane landed with speed and with the bumpy track, it was not such a good experience. Luckily, one of the worst flight I have ever been ( the second one is a flight between Zanzibar and Nairobi), was over! And I was alive and ready to start the North Korean Adventure!

Air Koryo - landing in Pyongyang

by Sorin

Sorin is a freelance travel writer. He is an experienced travel writer and traveller. Since 2012 he explored more than 60 countries on 4 continents: Asia, Europe, Africa and North America. Currently is based in Romania after spending the last 7 years in Myanmar.