International service to a recently showcased modern new airport at the east coast city of Wonsan is not yet possible, and major hurdles could prevent the introduction of service there any time soon, an NK News analysis of the airport and domestic airline capabilities has shown.
North Korea’s state airline Air Koryo currently only has four aircraft permitted to enter neighboring Chinese and Russian airspace, while the new Wonsan International Airport is said to currently lack refueling capabilities to top up visiting commercial jets.
The lack of commercial refueling capabilities means that for the foreseeable future, only domestic flights from nearby domestic airports will be possible, provided they bring enough fuel to make a round-trip without refueling in Wonsan.
And – even if fuel issues are resolved – it appears that airline fleet capacities could seriously restrict the potential for Air Koryo to regularly service the new destination with any regularity, unless other foreign airlines decide to commence service there.
Together – and despite a clearly significant investment in the new airport – those points make it hard to see how the airport’s alleged 2,000 per day passenger capability could be exploited anytime soon, raising serious questions about the intended purpose of the new airport.
Previously the entry port for Japanese visitors sailing from Nigata – and being relatively close to the Kumgang Mountain Resort once visited by millions of South Koreans – North Korea’s east coast has been untouched by major tourism since sanctions largely prevented nationals from those countries visiting in 2006 and 2008, respectively.
Yet efforts to revitalize the area – in the face of the hurdles preventing South Koreans or Japanese from visiting – have been notable in their frequency, and failure, in recent years.
From the introduction of two ill-fated east coast cruise lines from the Rason Special Economic Zone (SEZ), to the surprise construction of the Masikryong ski resort in 2013, and introduction of new hotels and attractions in Wonsan, it has been clear for several years that North Korea is keen to bring visitors back to its eastern coast.
‘It can also be perceived as a strong sign to international investors that the DPRK is taking tourism development seriously’
Roughly four hours from Pyongyang by road, the construction of the new airport is “designed to be an international gateway to feed tourists into the Wonsan-Kumgang tourism zones,” Juche Travel Services CEO David Thompson, who led a delegation of aviation enthusiasts to the airport last week, told NK News on Wednesday.
“It can also be perceived as a strong sign to international investors that the DPRK is taking tourism development seriously, and is willing to invest significant funds into providing the necessary transport infrastructure to develop this tourism zone and to accommodate investors,” Thompson said.
That’s something another specialist familiar with plans for the area confirmed.
“This airport obviously serves to bring in, and impress, potential investors, while avoiding the terrible roads from Pyongyang and Rason and the longer-haul efforts of rebuilding them,” said the source, who requested anonymity for commercial reasons.
But if foreign visitors have difficulties in easily landing at the airport, might any potential impressions of the shiny new facilities simply be wasted on them?
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
While Thompson says the new airport is “fully equipped to handle Western aircraft like Airbus and Boeing without any problem,” and that its “runway has been significantly lengthened and re-surfaced to the highest international standards,” one major hurdle to international service relates to the lack of relevant aircraft in the domestic Air Koryo fleet.
On paper, there would not theoretically be any problem with Air Koryo providing international service to the handful of airports dotted throughout the country, but a change in Chinese aviation rules banned the bulk of its fleet from entering PRC airspace in 2013.
“They currently have just four planes that are used for international flights,” said Simon Cockerell, general manager of the Beijing-based Koryo Tours.
Of those owned by the airline, “one is a TU-204-300 (142 seats), one is a TU-204-100 (176 seats) – these are basically marginally different models of the same plane, essentially a Russian version of a (Boeing) 757.
“They also have 2 x AN0148-100B (73 seats) which I believe are leased, perhaps from Antonov itself or maybe from a third party,” he said. “The remainder of the Air Koryo fleet, what they are better known for, flies only domestically. Some charters, some scheduled internal flights.”
And with its internationally capable airliners tasked with an increasing array of both regular and charter destinations, from Kuwait to Shanghai to Vladivostok, it is not clear how Air Koryo might be able to initiate direct international services to Wonsan any time soon.
In fact, things have got so difficult for tour agencies that even service on the regular Beijing-Pyongyang service is becoming insufficient at keeping up with demand.
“Tourism is increasing, they have a brand new world class airport at Pyongyang, but not enough flights to handle tourists entering or leaving the country,” said Rowan Beard, a tour operator with the Young Pioneer Travel agency in Xi’an, China.
Part of the problem, it seems, relates to an array of occasional new flight services to regional Chinese cities.
“What’s become quite a popular trend lately is Chinese tour companies chartering these jets to fly their massive Chinese groups from smaller cities such as Harbin and Shenyang to Pyongyang,” Beard said. “When this happens, it leaves only two jets left to operate international flights at that time,” something that inevitably causes knock-on effects on the normal Beijing route.”
Cockerell of Koryo Tours, underscores similar problems. “(With) the increase in charter routes from places such as Yanji and Zhengzhou, as well as flying twice weekly to Shanghai now, it means tickets are harder to get hold of for sure.”
And given Wonsan’s reputation as a summer beach destination, it is difficult to see how Air Koryo might be able to provide any regular direct international service to the new airport, especially during peak season when all four of its aircraft are already under intense use.
Which leaves only two options for the foreseeable future: either a requirement for passengers to change planes in Pyongyang to continue onward to the shiny new Wonsan airport on one of Air Koryo’s vintage airliners, or for other foreign airlines to start direct service there.
“If, however, international tourism numbers continue to grow, and these seasonal and temporary pressures become more widespread and commonplace, then you may find a move to purchase additional air frames if it makes economic sense,” said Thompson of Juche Travel Services.
But new aircraft do not come cheap, and uncertainty about just how North Korea uses its civilian airliners could mean international reluctance in providing Pyongyang with more airliners.
‘Given the known repurposing of civilian aircraft for military purposes by the Korean People’s Army, there may be notable hesitation to sell them such aircraft’
“At the UN level the DPRK is not explicitly prohibited from purchasing civilian aircraft,” said Andrea Berger, a researcher at the RUSI think-tank in London. “However, states are prohibited from selling North Korea any ‘arms or related materiel,’ except small arms and light weapons.
“Given the known repurposing of civilian aircraft for military purposes by the Korean People’s Army, there may be notable hesitation to sell them such aircraft in practice.”
Even if Air Koryo can muster new planes to service the airport or another airline decides it could become a lucrative route, another major hurdle to international service relates to a reported lack of commercial fuel provision there.
Though limited refueling services at the airport once existed for military aircraft – due to the airport once being a major air force base – it appears these are currently incapable of servicing the major requirements of commercial aircraft.
“They mentioned they are looking into refueling capabilities to accommodate international flights,” said DPRK 360 founder Aram Pam, a Singaporean photographer who joined Thompson at the airport last week, pointing out that according to his interlocutor, such a service would be “ready in the near future.”
“Passenger jets need tens of thousands of liters of fuel, so many larger airports have dedicated jet fuel pipelines feeding onsite ‘fuel farms’,” said NK News analytic director Leo Byrne of the specialist requirements for international service.
“Not all airports do however have such pipelines. In 2013 for example, Dublin airport was topped up by over 15,000 fuel tanker deliveries, so other techniques are possible,” he continued.
“(But) it’s also unclear where exactly North Korea would build a jet fuel pipeline from, meaning tankers might well be the only option,” he said.
“The lack of any sort of storage on site seems more surprising, though North Korea is well known for burying such facilities, especially in places with former, current and future military applications.”
While new airport certainly looks impressive and stands out in stark contrast to the facilities in other regional spots like Chongjin’s Orang airport and Samjiyon airport near Mount Paektu, can even the possibility of international flight deliver the numbers of tourists required to really regenerate the region?
“Knowing you can go, wanting to go, affording to go, all remain obstacles,” the anonymous tourist specialist explained.
“Seasonal links and charter flights to Beijing, Yanji, Shanghai, Vladivostock maybe, and obviously Pyongyang might all one day be possible,” he said, “(but) I don’t see tourism to the East Coast vaulting any time soon because of a new airport.”
Could there thus have been an otherwise hidden reason for the introduction of the new airport?
“The unspoken option is of course flights from South Korea – this would be massive and would completely justify the Sunan airport expansion and the building of Wonsan airport,” said Cockerell, the Koryo Tours General Manager.
“You never know: If this happens then I will claim to have had the foresight to see it in advance!”
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