Standing at the check in counter for Air Koryo Flight JS152 at Terminal 2 at Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK), I spent a few moments reflecting on what had brought me to this point where I have decided to make a visit to North Korea. Certainly not a travel destination on most short lists of must see destinations. A bit of apprehension on my part, acutely aware of the possibilities given recent events, but scared would definitely not be an accurate description.
We lined up for check-in in two separate lines, the foreign travelers in one line and the DPRK passengers in another. It wasn’t a requirement, just seemed to work out that way. Every DPRK passenger was wearing a pin on their shirts. Some were wearing the pin of President Kim Il Sung, some with the General Kim Jong Il and some had the dual pins featuring the likenesses of both. The DPRK passengers went about their business, ignoring the foreigners in the next line. The ground service employees handing out tickets and checking baggage were all Air China contract employee’s and we didn’t actually encounter any Air Koryo staff until we boarded the plane.
After ticketing we headed through Chinese Immigration, and a thorough security check and off to the boarding gate and duty free shopping land. The DPRK travelers were buying loads of cigarettes to take back home with Camel being the number one seller. I watched one guy buy over 40 cartons of Camels. In China, USA branded cigarettes sell for 17-23 USD per carton while Chinese cigarettes can be purchased for as little as 5 USD per carton. There seemed to be little interest in the Chinese cigarettes. We waited at the boarding gate for about an hour before boarding. There was no interaction between the DPRK travelers and the foreigners other than a smile or two, a few nods and some curious looks. Looking out on the ramp it was unique to see the waiting aircraft sporting a huge DPRK National Flag painted on the tail.
I boarded my first Russian aircraft for the 1.5hr flight to Pyongyang Sunan IAP (FNJ). Air Koryo operates 3 Russian Tupolev TU-204-100’s for all of its international destinations (Moscow, Vladivostok, Beijing, Shenyang, Kuala Lumpur, Kuwait). The aircraft was clean and well maintained and had leather seats throughout. The first class section contained 18 seats while the economy class had 120 seats with three seats on each side of the plane. The cabin crew was staffed by very attractive Air Koryo stewardesses who were decked out in dark blue/black above-the-knee skirts and v-neck sleeveless blouses that exposed some neckline with a modified Chinese-collared jacket and some neat hats. Each had their Kim pins properly affixed to their jackets. So they were all looking pretty, prim and proper. The martial music coming from the speakers was an interesting twist.
In the jet-way I grabbed a copy of the Workers Party Magazine titled No 701, Number 5 (May?) dated Juche Year 103, or 2014 for the remainder of the world. The magazine was all in Hangul and was essentially a photo-book with captions describing some of the recent accomplishments of the state/party: new construction, cultural sites, activities and, economic progress. Marshal Kim Jung Un’s photo covered the entire 1st page and the military occupied the 2nd and 3rd pages. It all made sense in a DPRK sort of way. As the stewardesses made their rounds through the plane they were handing out DPRK customs and entry forms and health forms. The entry form asked if you were bringing in any “killing device” which I found interesting! The safety demonstration was done by overhead video monitor.
After takeoff we were served a cold Air Koryo burger which seemed to be some sort of vegetable patty on a bun. It was edible but something I could never envision purchasing. Beer, water and apple cider were the beverage choices. The beer was passable but nothing special. The in-flight entertainment consisted of a video of Pyongyang and a Gymnastics contest in Monte Carlo that must have taken place in the late 70’s or early ‘80’s when the DPRK team won some awards. The video was in Hangul and subtitled in Russian. Pretty exciting stuff!
Air Koryo is the world’s only 1 star rated airline based on Skytrax ratings. Skytrax, operates the Airline Rating system which is recognized as the worldwide unified airline quality rating classification and benchmark system. Was it really that bad? No…..other than the food, the flight, service and aircraft were on par with most airlines I have flown! The 1 star classification is unjustified, based on my experiences, Air Koryo is somewhere around 3 stars overall.
The take-off, in-flight operations and landing were particularly uneventful, thanks to the Korean People’s Army Air Force (KPAAF) pilots who were flying the plane. Air Koryo is an agency of The Korean Peoples Army, subordinated to the Bureau of Civil Aviation which in turn belongs to the KPAAF. The pilots were wearing civilian pilot uniforms and no military rank.