International flights are yet to land at Wonsan’s Kalma International Airport since tourists first visited it in September 2015 and domestic air traffic there has been exceptionally light, flight data, travel industry insiders, and satellite imagery shows.

In addition, the new easterly runway built adjacent to the old one appears to be incomplete, perhaps contributing to why North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has never paid an official visit to the passenger terminal in state media records.

The Kalma airfield underwent a major renovation and modernization to accommodate international flights between 2014-2015, with a reported capacity at the new terminal of up to 2000 passengers a day, the addition of the uncompleted larger runway, as well as a smaller private one, presumably for Kim Jong Un’s personal use.

The airport, which was previously reserved only for military use, has not yet emerged as a destination for any international flights in data recorded by the NK Pro Aviation Tracker, a point confirmed by multiple regular visitors to the country.

“There have been no international flights, perhaps as few as zero domestic flights too,” said Simon Cockerell, General Manager of Koryo Tours. “I don’t know whether the sanctions on Air Koryo have prevented or slowed its opening, or maybe simply low demand for a route to Wonsan from inside or outside the country…”

Another source confirmed the limited usage of the airport, just over a four-hour drive from the capital.

“The only activity I’ve heard happening at the Kalma Airport since opening two years ago is a few tour groups requesting to visit the airport during their stay in Wonsan and the one-off Wonsan Air Show held last year,” said one tourist industry insider on condition of anonymity, adding the airport is operating with “minimal” staff.

“They would accept charter flights to Wonsan but there’s no weekly scheduled flights domestically or international,” the source added.

The airport was used as the venue for the inaugural Wonsan International Friendship Airshow in 2016, in which several hundred aviation enthusiasts visited the city to observe military and civilian aircraft maneuvers alongside thousands of locals.

Though a followup airshow had been planned for 2017, it was canceled abruptly a month before it was due to take place, possibly linked to an ongoing fuel shortage and UN sanctions which ban countries selling or supplying aviation fuel to North Korea for anything but “essential humanitarian needs.”

In the past 12 months, only one satellite image has featured an aircraft | Picture: Planet Labs

DOMESTIC ISSUE

NK Pro analysis of scores of satellite images of the airport taken by Planet Labs over the past twelve months also indicated only one date in which an aircraft could be seen at the airport: June 27, 2017.

Satellite imagery of the airport throughout the rest of the year, however, showed no signs of any activity, indicative of the exceptionally low level of traffic the airport has had to deal with. Even domestic flight data published by state airline Air Koryo has yet to list the airport as a destination.

Beyond usage complications possibly resulting from several layers of new United Nations and U.S. unilateral sanctions imposed on the North since the airport opened, it’s possible that an ongoing fuel storage could be an issue for some flights.

A reported lack of commercial refueling capabilities at the airport when it was opened to tourists in September 2015 means that, unless since rectified, only domestic flights from nearby airports would be possible – provided they bring enough fuel to make a round-trip without refueling in Wonsan.

“Wonsan is a port and I don’t know if fuel is brought in there by ship perhaps, but no planes = no need for them to refuel,” said Cockerell. “I don’t know if a lack of refueling facilities (if there is such a lack) could cause the lack of flights though: don’t know if the chicken or egg came first.”

Tourist photo of the airport in September 2015 | Picture: Aram Pan

Still, some visitors to Wonsan last year heard about planned activity at the airport.

“We met the People’s Council and they said end of the year (2016) the airport would be operating with international flights,” a regular visitor who often works in North Korea told NK Pro. “They seemed pretty confident about it, but as often the case, the reality proved different.”

Since then, some tour groups have been able to visit,  but flights there are very rare and one recent visitor said a request to visit the airport was declined.

“When a tour group requests to visit they’ll switch on the lights and open some stores inside,” the travel industry source said. “Most of the items on the menu aren’t available, but long life snacks and drinks can be purchased.”

While a contingent of foreign aviation enthusiasts visited the airport in September 2015, domestic Korean language reporting about the airport’s very existence is spartan, and no official North Korean news article has ever reported any grand opening ceremony there.

That might be because Google Earth imagery from May 2017 – verified in October imagery by Planet Labs – indicates one runway is yet to even be completed, suggesting the overall airport remains unfinished.

The airports’ new easterly facing runway (right) was never completed, satellite imagery dated May reveals

The incomplete easterly runway, which one source familiar with the airport described as being similar to a “rubble substrate…certainly not usable as a runway”, was added to complement the former military bases’ preexisting sole runway.

Perhaps linked, though 22 English language articles in the international-facing Pyongyang Times and KCNA websites about air show activities at the airport exist, domestic Korean language coverage of Kalma’s new terminal is almost non-existent: the Rodong Sinmun in September 2016 featured a short gallery on page four about the airshow, which also featured on domestic TV news around the same time.

In addition, state airline Air Koryo’s website doesn’t list the Kalma terminal among its destinations, which Kim Jong Un has never officially visited for an opening ceremony (though he did appear at a viewing stand to the east of the incomplete runway to observe an air force drill in July 2015).

The airport also features a private hangar for Kim Jong Un’s personal Ilyushin-62 aircraft on the east of the incomplete runway, and imagery shows efforts have been made to partially pave the uncompleted runway to allow his plane to taxi safely there.

Notably, rumors circulated in December 2015 that an assassination attempt had been set to take place at the airport, with explosives found in an information desk the day before Kim Jong Un was scheduled to visit. The story was never corroborated.

The unfinished runway was painted to appear finished when tourists visited in September 2015, satellite imagery shows | Picture: Google Earth

It’s possible, then, that development work at the airport have all ceased for the time being, perhaps due to the probable lack of demand.

“Let’s imagine they have lots of tourists going to the Masik-ryong ski-resort, in this case they would need this airport,” said Fyodor Tertitskiy, a regular NK News contributor. “But since it’s not the most popular tourist destination on the planet, they are quite satisfied letting people goto Pyongyang and then traveling to Wonsan by land.”

Main picture: Aram Pan