About the Author
View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
Running since late 2009, Air Koryo’s Facebook page has received a fair amount of media attention in recent months, with articles surfacing in the Korea Times, Yonhap, the Taipei Times and a number of online social media magazines. Having been set up not long after North Korean propagandists established official Twitter, Facebook and Youtube accounts, it is easy to see how journalists of the aforementioned articles explained the Air Koryo page as part of an official DPRK social media strategy. But while all of North Korea’s official “Uriminzokkiri” accounts sprout pro-regime propaganda and rarely enter dialogue with their followers, the Air Koryo page sticks out in comparison – with its extremely engaging voice, witty banter, and occasional anti-regime sentiment. With that in mind, NK News decided to take a closer look at the Facebook page to determine its authenticity.
When looking back at the material posted online at the Air Koryo Facebook page, there is a range of content and news that at first look suggests the page must be official. Most convincing is that the Facebook page has been the source of a number of routing stories since its inception, detailing new connections to Kuwait, Kuala Lumpar, and most recently, Berlin. Interestingly, the administrators of the page have also posted a wide range of photos, many of which might be difficult for the average plane-spotter to obtain. These include shots of Air Koryo aircraft in final stages of production, photos of planes undergoing maintenance in the DPRK, and depictions of staff working behind the scenes at offices in Pyongyang. Finally, there is the fact that the administrators of the page often refer to the airline in the possessive sense, most recently through the somewhat ambiguous statement that “This page represents Air Koryo – Korean Airways”.
Given Air Koryo no longer has an official website, it is easy to see why so many journalists and Korea watchers have been led into thinking the page is an official presence. However, a close look at comments made by the administrators of the page reveal a breadth of anti-regime sentiment that indicates otherwise.
– March 13, 2010: On the construction of the 105-floor Ryugyong Hotel, Air Koryo page administrators said that the money going towards the building project could “be better spent on the outlying areas of the DPRK,” later adding that there needs to be a “change to the political government” of North Korea.
– April 16, 2010: When probed about language that venerates Kim Jong-il in the Air Koryo in-flight video, the administrators responded “[This is] one of the downsides to operating a company in the DPRK”.
– November 25, 2010: In a conversation about why Air Koyro flights to border destinations like Haeju and Kaesong were suspended post the shelling of Yeonpyeong, the administrator explained that it was due to the “aggressive action taken by the KPA (Korean People’s Army) against the ROK”
The above comments are by no means exhaustive, but go someway in showing the flavor of language and approach that the administrators of the Air Koryo page use. Other “official” Air Koryo comments describe religious persecution in the DPRK, the “tyrannical” character of the North Korean government, and the incredulous claim that internet cafes are abundant in Pyongyang. And while it goes without saying, the notion that any such freedom of thought could articulate in the utterances of official representatives of North Korea’s state airline is quite simply unimaginable in our current environment.
So if the Air Koryo Facebook page isn’t official (as it seems not to be), how then has it become one of the best known sources for contemporary information on the airline? Another scan through the comments section of the page reveals a number of answers.
From the somewhat rare use of Russian in both the title of the Facebook page and on much of the airline propaganda, coupled with the Russian Orthodox churches depicted in some of the Xmas greetings added to the page galleries, it is clear that there is a significant Russian influence in the administration. A closer look at the comments section reveals that one of the moderators lives in Vladivostok, and goes by the name of Dimitry Quanunnigov. A quick search for him on Facebook reveals that he is the Chief Operating Pilot of the Russian Division of Air Koryo and follower of “Orthodox Christianity”.
Another moderator refers to himself as a “pilot who is working at Ulyanovsk with UAC” (United Aircraft Corporation), a company that delivers Russian aircraft to clients, including Air Koryo. Whether there are other moderators working on the page is not clear, but from the background of these two individuals it is highly probable that the page is an unofficial (but well-sourced) fan-page.
While these two Russians often refer to the airline in a possessive sense in their postings, it is likely that this is more down to a translation issue as opposed to implying an actual relationship with the company. And even if they are associated with Air Koryo in any official sense, it seems exceedingly unlikely that the DPRK state airline would authorize two foreign nationals to maintain its entire online presence – and talk ill of the Pyongyang government. In short, the important lesson is that anything said on the Air Koryo page must be taken with a pinch of salt.
With positions in aircraft distribution companies and pilots based in Vladivostok, compared to journalists, the administrators are in a good place to obtain unique stories and insights on the airline. However, they have to date tended to report straight facts without mentioning the realities on the ground. For example, the Facebook page claims Air Koryo conducts daily internal flights to an assortment of North Korean cities, with regular external flights to a number of destinations including Kuwait, Shanghai and Moscow. While these routes have all certainly been flown before, they are in reality flown extremely infrequently, and are not truly representative of the airlines operations. Either the Facebook administrators have a vested interest in making the airline sound better than it actually is, or they are reporting as fact the JS (Air Koryo flight code) routes that appear on inter-airline booking systems as representative of a growing route map. Most puzzling is why they are so ambiguous in revealing the actual status of the page; official or otherwise.
In a time when North Korea is actively engaging the world through an increasing number of social media profiles, it is important to keep a check on what exactly is being said – and by whom. Changes in social media behaviors to the level articulated in the Air Koryo Facebook page would imply significant changes in Pyongyang’s outward-facing public relations strategy. Unfortunately, the DPRK remains a long way from allowing the plurality of thinking, humor, and engagement that has become the norm on the Air Koryo facebook page to articulate on its other social media assets. And while there is a great deal of interesting information being published on the Facebook page, it should certainly not be reported as fact by major newspapers without a healthy dose of clarification first.
What do you think? Leave your comments below.