Commercial satellite imagery indicates several of Air Koryo’s passenger aircraft fleet have been cycled through maintenance hangars at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport since the beginning of May. Maintenance on individual aircraft has only been seen occasionally throughout the pandemic period, making this level of activity notable. Combined with the recent return of China’s ambassador to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) to Pyongyang and rumors the country will reopen to some level of tourism in June, this activity appears to suggest expectations that passenger air service will resume in the near future.
Air Koryo Fleet
Air Koryo operates a small fleet consisting of Russian- and Ukrainian-built aircraft. Throughout most of the COVID-19 lockdown period, the company’s aircraft were parked at two parking positions at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport. One area is to the west of the main runway, and another is on the eastern side, south of the main terminal.
Occasionally, individual aircraft have made domestic flights, but no regular international passenger service is believed to have taken place in three years.
This image, taken in 2022, shows all but one of the Air Koryo fleet in their regular parking position. The only missing aircraft is one of the three Ilyushin IL-76 cargo planes that is normally parked alongside the others.
To get an idea of aircraft use, we looked at archived automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) and photos uploaded to the JetPhotos.com website by aviation enthusiasts for the twelve months prior to North Korea’s border closure in early 2020. It showed that three of the airline’s fleet carried out almost all recorded international flights.
- P-671, an Antonov An-148, commonly flew the Pyongyang-Macau route but was also seen at Dalian, Beijing Capital, Shenyang-Taoxian and Vladivostok in 2019.
- P-632, a Tupolev Tu-204, was often seen in 2019 at Beijing Capital and also recorded at Vladivostok, Shanghai-Pudong, Jinan Yaoqiang International and Shenyang-Taoxian in China.
- P-633, a Tupolev Tu-204, was seen in 2019 at Beijing Capital, Vladivostok, Shanghai-Pudong, Wuhan Tianhe and Shenyang-Taoxian.
Both of Air Koryo’s four-engine Ilyushin IL-62s were seen overseas in 2019, although much less frequently than the other three aircraft. One was spotted at Vladivostok-Knevichi, and one at Hanoi Noi Boi in Vietnam. Other Air Koryo aircraft have not been spotted overseas since 2018 or earlier.
The remainder of the fleet was recorded serving domestic routes or was not recorded flying at all. Due to poor coverage of ADS-B networks over North Korea, it’s possible some flights took place without being captured by outside observers.
On May 8, a Tupolev Tu-134 and a Tu-154 aircraft can be observed in the maintenance area at Sunan. The Tu-154 appears to have been in position since at least April 16. This long-term presence over several weeks is typical of Air Koryo maintenance patterns in the past year.
Alongside them in the maintenance area are two helicopters and three small aircraft that have been stored here long-term. From the western parking area, an Ilyushin IL-76 is also visible taxiing north, although its eventual destination is unknown. All other aircraft are in their normal parking positions.
By May 10, the Tu-134 and IL-76 are back in their parking positions, and the Tu-154 remains in the same position in the maintenance area. All other aircraft are parked in their usual parking positions.
On May 16, the Tu-154 was moved to the eastern side of the maintenance area and joined by a Tupolev Tu-204 and Antonov An-148. These two latter aircraft are the types most commonly seen on international flights. With the exception of these three aircraft, all others are in their normal parking positions.
On May 21, the Tu-154 is still in its position in the maintenance area and both Tu-204s are observed. The Tu-204s are among the most modern in Air Koryo’s fleet and were the mainstay of the airline’s China routes prior to the pandemic. All other aircraft are in their regular parking positions.
It is unclear whether these aircraft movements are a result of regular maintenance or a signal of a near-term resumption of air traffic. While Air Koryo aircraft have been in and out of the maintenance bay throughout the last twelve months, it is unusual that such a large number have been serviced in such a short period of time.
Numerous unconfirmed reports from the Chinese border say preparations are being made to reopen road freight and possibly tourism in the coming weeks. On May 5, the World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 is no longer a “global health emergency,” which could further prompt North Korea to continue its cautious reopening.