A recent UPI headline found a form of success with a big claim: “North Korea’s Air Koryo suspended operations again.” Good heavens! I thought. This could be a major blow to Kim Jong-un, who has taken a real personal interest in both the North Korean fleet and the operations of Air Koryo, no doubt with an augmented revenue stream in mind!
Having then read the piece, my bothersome inner editor insisted on a minor addition.
While North Koreans can still get to Shenyang in the space of one rather long travel day (thanks to Shenyang’s new high-speed link from Dandong, a stretch which I traveled on this past spring soon after it opened), a downturn or shutdown of the Pyongyang-Shenyang flight is potentially important. So a look at the original source is merited.
Focusing on a possible problem on one flight to Shenyang arrives in the wake of a dramatic redirection of a single flight to Shenyang in July, which led to this Reuters report of 17 August suggesting that Chinese aviation authorities were giving Koryo Airlines a heads-up about its safety record.
Geoffrey See’s account of the damaged flight in July did not inspire confidence.
But is the Chinese government putting the squeeze on Koryo as a matter of policy, and as a means of generating yet more leverage over Pyongyang? Probably not. What evidence do I have to support this assertion?
For all of its documented problems, Air Koryo now has opened up new routes to Taiyuan and the Shandong provincial capital of Jinan. These are weekly routes with limited numbers, but they indicate that the lifeline of Chinese tourists remains very much open to the DPRK. (Incidentally there is a “Chinese tourists at the Pyongyang Beer Festival vs. South Korean Beer and Fried Chicken festival” essay to be written here, but not by me).
Anecdotal data has a place in this conversation. We should be aware of the relatively harsher Chinese customs searches which occasionally are handed out to North Korean passengers entering and exiting the PRC. Likewise, reporters writing about North Korea for UPI and VOA (be they stationed in Minneapolis or Washington, D.C.) have every right to watch flight lines on their computer monitors and flag up irregularities when they exist.
But UN sanctions will not halt Air Koryo’s operations in Beijing, as Dong-A Ilbo predicted they would in February. And headlines which imply that Koryo Airlines is somehow failing in China while ignoring evidence of the company’s limited moves to capture more of the China tourism market do a disservice to our understanding of what is actually going on.
Image: Kim Jong-un with Ri Sol-ju at an air show on 9 May 2014, via Chosun Central Television.