Two airlines fly into North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), the national airline, Air Koryo and Air China. Invariably you will fly in from Beijing to Pyongyang though a few tourists enter from Vladivostok and there are on again off again flights from Shanghai. The airline also has a (very) small number of other international routes (not currently used by tourists).
From a North Korean perspective, citizens of all countries, with the exception of South Korea, can fly into North Korea so long as they are on an official tour and in possession of a passport and visa/Tourist Card. The United States has currently banned its citizens from entering North Korea as tourists. The vast majority of visitors will have a Tourist Card (organised by your tour operator and separate to your passport) as opposed to a visa. Those with access to a North Korean Embassy can choose to have a visa inserted in their passport instead of getting a separate Tourist Card. Those using the, much simpler, Tourist Card option will have no entries made in their passports.
On both my 2014 and my 2018 trips I flew from Beijing on Air Koryo (which is the airline I really wanted to use and the one I recommend you aim for, especially on your first trip). Its fleet consists of a number of ageing Russian planes – with a Tupolev TU 204-100 plying the Beijing – Pyongyang route. As neither Air Koryo nor Air China has a daily service the one you will use will typically depend on the day you enter North Korea. As tickets are booked and paid for by tour companies I have no idea how much flights cost – you can’t just rock up and buy a ticket.
Air Koryo, in most airline surveys, ranks as one of the world’s worst airlines. It is the only airline in the world deemed bad enough to earn a 1-star rating from airline reviewer SkyTrax. I believe this ranking is totally unjustified and could list multiple worse airlines. While the food was disgusting in 2014 and average in 2018 everything else was top notch.
Both trips I have made to North Korea coincided with major holidays and because of this the flights were full. Apart from a few accompanying guides and a fewer number of return visitors I imagine 99% of the passengers had never been to North Korea before.
As soon as you step off the air-bridge you are immediately thrust into North Korea right there on the tarmac in Beijing. For me, my first experience brought back memories of travelling via Aeroflot from Dublin to Moscow over thirty years ago.
Air hostesses and stewards welcome you in uniforms adorned with the obligatory pin/badge commemorating leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and patriotic, revolutionary, state approved, marching music wafts in the aisles prior to take-off and landing with in-flight entertainment being infomercials (though they wouldn’t see them as that and I really shouldn’t use that horrible word) on upmarket North Korean ski-resorts, water parks and the like. I found the crew to be genuinely friendly and helpful and a world removed from the jaded trolley-dollies with fake smiles I have become accustomed to on Qantas and most other western airlines.
As Pyongyang approaches one certainly senses a distinct air of excitement coupled with an equally strong sense of apprehension on this trip into one of the last unknowns and most certainly the most secretive and misunderstood country on earth. At this stage you may be wondering what you have let yourself in for! Don’t panic – you will be fine!
Reflecting back on the flights, I think the plane was the only confined place I was in throughout my two trips to North Korea which did not have pictures of the Leaders hanging up, as if keeping an eye on proceedings or providing inspiration for the assembled comrades. Perhaps to make up for this, in 2014 everyone had their own individual pictures of the current leader, Kim Jung-un, courtesy of the complementary English language Pyongyang Times (which he, perhaps not surprisingly, adorns on a weekly basis) in addition to other approved and wholesome reading material extolling the virtues of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In 2018 reading material was much more limited and, in line with many other airlines, newspapers and magazines were distributed by crew members who had insufficient quantity for everyone such that people beyond the first dozen or so rows missed out.
Food was eagerly anticipated, not because anyone was hungry as they had all (with the benefit of advance knowledge) breakfasted in Beijing, but rather because everyone wanted to see if it really was a burger and if it really did taste as bad as anticipated. The meal provided on Air Koryo, be you flying over breakfast, lunch or dinner, is indeed always a burger.
In 2014 the burger was wrapped in grease-proof paper akin to that used by McDonalds on its cheeseburgers though I assume that was coincidental unless, of course, McDonalds stole the idea from Air Koryo. Goodness knows what the pattie contained. A few people persevered and ate the whole squashed and tasteless thing, washed down by equally interesting tasting cider. I, like the majority of passengers, got about half-way though the thing before admitting defeat.
In 2018 the packaging had been upgraded to a plastic box which meant that the burger wasn’t squashed flat on arrival. The cute little doily was a nice touch. I also feel the bun was fresher and sweeter though suspect the pattie was of similar pedigree to what it was in 2014. In any event, the 2018 version tasted much nicer but to suggest it was a gastronomic delight would be somewhat of an exaggeration. A vegetarian meal option is now available – the same burger minus the pattie! This year there a choice of locally produced soft drinks on offer. I selected a fizzy orange drink which was entirely satisfactory.
All in all, a great flight and a great insight into what lay in store for us. Already we knew this would be a fantastic and memorable trip.
Notwithstanding the positive flight experience, if eligible to do so, I recommend you leave North Korea by train for another great experience. See my separate entry – Getting out of the DPRK by Train. Note that this linked review was written post my 2014 trip and is a little dated. I returned to Beijing by plane in 2018.
When we arrived into Pyongyang in 2014 the airport was undergoing a major renovation – it was actually rebuilt. Due to this we alighted via steps and were bussed to a temporary terminal building but not before having ample time to photograph the plane and surroundings, an opportunity that almost everyone availed of given that it’s not every day your fly Air Koryo. As fair is fair, we were filmed and photographed alighting the plane by hidden, but not terribly well hidden, officials.
In 2018 we pulled right up to what is still a pristine, state of the art terminal building – built at the behest of, and under the guidance of, the current leader, Kim Jong-un.
There was still plenty of opportunity to take photos of the plane and more generally inside the airport. That said, on both my trips, the first of many photography warnings issued to members of our group were delivered in the customs area. Photography within this part of the terminal building is “forbidden” – a word we would all become very familiar with over our time in North Korea.
Customs and Immigration on entry (2018)
When we boarded the plane in Beijing we were handed three forms – thankfully we had received a briefing on how to complete these documents and guidance notes the previous evening at a briefing session in Beijing, presented by our tour company.
- Immigration form
- Fairly standard questions – with additional details required around who invited you to North Korea.
- Currency declaration form
- It is necessary to list all currency you bring into North Korea. You again declare what you bring out. No checks on what we brought in or out (noting that North Korean Won cannot legally be brought into or out of the country) were carried out so I surmise that someone sits and records these details such that they have an idea, based on declarations, of what currencies and what amounts are being spent in the country by visitors.
- Customs declaration form
- On entry the accuracy or otherwise of this form is checked in detail for all visitors. In addition to declaring any ‘weapon, ammunition, explosive or killing device’ you might be carrying you are required to declare all electronic and photography equipment (including memory cards) such that you bring it out again on departure. You must also hand over your mobile phone so that it can be externally inspected and recorded by customs staff. All baggage is scanned and thoroughly checked and you will be asked if you are bringing in any religious literature or books on Korea – North or South (both strictly banned). Pornography and dedicated GPS equipment are also banned but GPS functions within phones and other equipment seems to be ok. I hadn’t realised that memory cards had to be listed but the good lady checking my bags found my extra cards and recorded them for me, without admonishing me!
While waiting for the final few of our group to exit customs our tour company guide emerged in a state of mild panic demanding that everyone remove from their bags and return to him company luggage tags he had given to us the previous evening – apparently officials reached the conclusion that some artwork thereon breached North Korean copyright law! I was somewhat surprised that such law even existed in North Korea where everyone shares everything!
Customs and Immigration on exit (2018)
Customs checks, rudimentary as they were, were combined with the check-in process with hold bags being scanned at this point. There were no checks to see if items I had declared on entry were, in fact, taken out, if I was smuggling out any North Korean Won or if I had breached the country’s copyright laws in any way!
Immigration procedures were straight-forward and basically consisted of the immigration officer removing and retaining my Tourist Card having assured himself that I broadly looked like the photo attached to it and that in my passport. Final security screening for me and my hand luggage was similar to what it is anywhere else in the world, for international flights.
As noted earlier the airport terminals (international and domestic) are new and state of the art. It is clearly a showcase building and well in excess of what is required to service the handful of flights that come and go each day.
There is a decent range of shops and light eating options though be warned that, certainly in terms of coffee and snacks, international prices apply and a (rather poor) coffee cost 5 Euro. Air-side there is a decent bookshop lest you need to round out your library of books and other guidance written by the Leaders, prior to leaving the country! Ginseng and postage stamps are also readily available though your desire for Hermes, Gucci, Tiffany and other imperialistic trappings will have to await your arrival in Beijing to be fulfilled!
My next North Korea 2018 – General Review – HERE
Return to the beginning of my North Korea 2018 – General Reviews –HERE