North Korea’s Wonsan International Airport (also known as Kalma Airport) has been the site of a major construction and renovation project for the past two years. Though progress has not always been consistent, the project has appeared to be a major concern for Pyongyang and one which could potentially have a significant impact for the North Korean tourism industry and economy in general, once complete.
Previously known as the Wonsan Air Base and used primarily as a military airfield, the airport is located within the greater Wonsan city boundaries and immediately east of the city’s urban center. The northern portion of the airport occupies the southern half of the Kalma Pensinula and the airport is adjacent to both Wonsan Harbor (to the west) and the Sea of Japan (known in Korea as the East Sea, to the airport’s east). North Korean state media on July 30, referred to the airport as Kalma Airport (named for the peninsula), which may be its new official name following the renovation.
DELAYED & CHANGING PLANS
In June 2013, Hong Kong-based architectural firm PLT revealed plans for a $200 million-renovation of the Wonsan International Airport. PLT released concept art of the new airport design on their official website. However, less than a month after the plans were revealed, PLT reported the plans were put on hold due to “political instability issues.”
But after about one year with no progress or update on the project, construction began at Wonsan Airport by July 4 of last year, based on Google Earth imagery. Construction has continued through at least June 2015 (according to Google Earth imagery) and may still be in progress.
The renovations made so far include resurfacing of the existing 2.5 kilometer runway, the construction of a new parallel runway of about 3.5 kilometers, new diagonal high-speed taxiways, new aprons, and numerous new buildings, including what is likely the new terminal next to the central apron and another prominent structure on the east side of the airfield. The area just west of the runways and taxiways features over 30 new buildings currently under construction or recently completed.
The airport became open for at least limited use by late July 2015 (when) Kim Jong Un’s Il-62 landed and took-off at the airfield
The airport became open for at least limited use by late July 2015, when the Korean People’s Army Air and Anti-Air Force held a combat aeronautics contest there. Various military aircraft and Kim Jong Un’s Il-62 landed and took-off at the airfield.
The original PLT concept design called for the 3.5 kilometer runway now under construction. According to architect Karolis Kazlauskas’ official website, the PLT plan featured two circular terminal buildings, designed to resemble “two different forms of two traditional drums.”
The terminal building currently under construction, however, does not at all resemble the original PLT design. The terminal consists of a two parts; both with an overall rectangular shape and with arched roofs and also includes an air traffic control tower. The building on the east side of the airfield includes a covered open-air seating area and a large, circular observation tower-like structure. This was the location of Kim Jong Un and other regime leadership during the aeronautics contest in late July.
It is unclear why certain aspects of the design plan changed. It is not even known if PLT is still involved in the project or if some other firm took over after the project’s delay: the architectural firm declined to comment to NK News regarding the airport.
Choi Seong-won of the Center of Eurasia & North Korea Infrastructure agreed that the airport design clearly differs from the original PLT plan and speculated that one reason for the delay may been to accommodate revisions.
“(T)he satellite imagery of the Wonsan airport is different than what PLT had proposed, as the satellite imagery from June 9th (2015) of that area shows two rectangular buildings connected by a pedestrian overpass whereas the original plan was to build two circular buildings,” Choi told NK News. “During the time that the construction seemed to be halted, they were probably making some adjustments to the original plans.”
EXPANSION & POTENTIAL
As a military air base, Wonsan Air Base was comparable in size to many other airfields in North Korea and was smaller than some of the major military air bases such as Pukchang and Sunchon. The renovation will make Wonsan Airport the second largest airport in North Korea, after Pyongyang Sunan International Airport. Previously, the airport was designated primarily as a military airfield, but redesign plans will transform it into a civilian international airport. Air Koryo was the only airline to operate out of Wonsan Airport previously and used it solely for domestic flights to and from Pyongyang, Chongjin and Haeju.
The renovation will make Wonsan Airport the second largest airport in North Korea
North Korea has been working to develop the Wonsan-Mount Kumgang Tourist Zone in eastern Kangwon Province around Wonsan. The nearby Masikryong Ski Resort, for example, opened in January 2015. Mount Kumgang, a famous Korean mountain located in the North which was previously open to tourism from the South, is also located in the area. North Korea has expressed interest in reopening the Mount Kumgang tourist area. In addition to being the major urban center of a developing tourist area, Wonsan is a major port city and transportation hub.
“(The) DPRK is probably renovating its airport terminals to bring in tourists from China after the termination of the Mount Kumgang Tours with ROK,” Choi Seong-won told NK News. “They had pursued a cruise project in 2012, where they would bring in tourists from Rajin to Mount Kumgang by renovating a cargo ship to a cruise ship. This was a massive failure with a lot of complaints from tourists,” explained Choi. He continued, “If the airport is built, then they do not have to worry about transporting the tourists; they would come into DPRK using Chinese airplanes. These airport terminals will be used to bring in tourists from abroad.”
“DPRK is probably renovating its airport terminals to bring in tourists from China after the termination of the Mt. Geumgang Tours with ROK”
The completion and opening of a new international airport in Wonsan could have significant impact for North Korea as well as for foreign visitors to the country.
If Wonsan Airport opens as a destination and departure point for international flights, tourists visiting the area from abroad would be able to fly directly to Wonsan, rather than flying into Pyongyang and then traveling overland to the tourist attractions in Kangwon Province. This would make tourism more convenient and potentially more attractive to the tourists and could result in more revenue for North Korea, especially if more tourist attractions are built in the area.
According to Choi, the airport renovations could bring meaningful economic benefits for North Korea in general and the Wonsan region specifically.
“The Wonsan Airport renovations will bring in foreign currency and foreigners into the city of Wonsan,” said Choi. “Wonsan used to be a booming economic city, making a living through trade but after the 2011 sanctions on vessels, it was impossible to bring in foreign goods into the city, thus the collapse of the Wonsan city.”
“After this renovation, it would develop the economy of Wonsan. This would also bring positive changes to the civilians living in Wonsan as the city would need to go through renovations/modernization to accommodate the influx of tourists. It would also create more employment opportunities for the people in Wonsan as they would need to hire people to work in developing the city as well as hiring people in regards to the touristic activities”
‘Wonsan used to be a booming economic city, making a living through trade but after the 2011 sanctions on vessels, it was impossible to bring in foreign goods into the city, thus the collapse of the Wonsan city’
Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours believes the airport could have significant impact, but it will depend on several factors and how North Korea actually implements them, such as whether or not it will truly be an international airport.
“(I)t depends on the number of flights from overseas destinations and which ones they would be,” Cockerell told NK News. “Air Koryo’s fleet is rather small so they would likely need more planes to get people in and out through Wonsan.”
Cockerell also agreed that the direct access to the Wonsan area for tourists may make tourism more attractive and convenient. He expressed optimism toward the opening of another international airport.
“I see the main interest for western tourists as being the possibility to get to the east coast of the country and then maybe fly out from Wonsan rather than make the trip back over to Pyongyang, which is a bumpy drive that people don’t really enjoy the second time!
“It’s good for a country to have a wider range of entry and exit methods of course, and to have more than one international airport too, I hope it is something worthwhile if and when it finally opens.”
INVESTING IN THE REGION
The North Korean leadership’s interest in this region has noticeably increased in recent years. Kim Jong Il, during his rule from 1994 through 2011, visited Kangwon Province an average of three times per year. Only twice, in 2000 and 2009, did he visit the province ten or more times in one year. Kim Jong Un since 2012 has visited Kangwon Province an average of 12 times per year and only in 2012 did he visit the province less than 11 times (this includes 11 visits to Kangwon Province in only the first half of 2015).
In addition to the renovation of Wonsan Airport, North Korea has conducted construction or changes at two other nearby airfields. At the existing Kangda-ri air base, about eight kilometers southwest of Wonsan Airport, the northern runway has been removed and replaced with farmland, though the southern runway – which passes through a mountain – remains intact. Kangda-ri may be the location to which the military aircraft previously based at Wonsan were relocated, though they have not yet been observed there. It is possible they may be stored in hangers or underground bunkers, but may also be at another location. It is also possible the military aircraft previously stationed at Wonsan may return there. In addition to the airport being the site of a recent military aeronautics contest, a long taxiway to a parking area previously used for military aircraft remains intact.
In addition to the renovation of Wonsan Airport, North Korea has conducted construction or changes at two other nearby airfields
At Songdowon, about seven kilometers west of Wonsan Airport, a new runway was built immediately west of Songdowon Station between March and July 2014. The new runway, about 560 meters long, replaced a previously existing helipad and is believed to be used primary by Kim Jong Un. With the main Wonsan Airport under construction and intended to be used in the future as an international commercial airport, it was necessary for North Korea to construct a new smaller airfield in the area reserved for the use of Kim Jong Un and other regime elites.
Given the recent air force aeronautics contest held at there, it may not be long before the airport is fully operational. It is likely now just a matter of completing the interior of the terminal, if it has not already been done. The opening of the new international airport could thus lead to an increase in tourism and other economic activity in Wonsan and the surrounding Kangwon Province. In order to make the most of their investment, North Korea will likely build and open other attractions and more aggressively market existing ones – such as Masikryong Ski Resort and Mount Kumgang). It is not clear yet whether this will result in an actual increase of tourism for North Korea or simply shift the travel route and destination of some tourists away from Pyongyang. The new airport has the potential to make a difference for North Korea and for visitors to the country, but how much difference will depend on how Pyongyang uses it.
Leo Byrne contributed to this report.
Featured image: Google Earth
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