According to Kommersant, the Federal Air Transport Agency has invited Russian air carriers to begin flights to Pyongyang. Representatives of the regulator are discussing with colleagues from the DPRK the possibility of expanding air traffic between the countries. So far, according to Kommersant, the proposal has been received by Aeroflot and Aurora, the latter has confirmed its “theoretical readiness.” Currently, the only way to get to Pyongyang without a special flight is from Vladivostok on Air Koryo planes. Tour operators have not yet received requests to restore tours to the DPRK and do not expect a surge in demand. Experts believe that the traffic will be mainly business trips and business, although they expect a small flow of exotic lovers.
As Kommersant learned, a delegation from the Federal Air Transport Agency visited North Korea last week to coordinate with the DPRK Civil Aviation Administration the organization of flights of Russian carriers to Pyongyang. According to Kommersant, Aeroflot and the Far Eastern Aurora received an offer to assess their readiness for such transportation. The conversation, Kommersant sources say, may be about increasing the number of regular flights and adjusting air services agreements (ASA). In the first CBC between the USSR and the DPRK, the designated carrier was Aeroflot. The 1997 CBC states that each party may designate any airline by giving written notice to the other. “Additional, special and charter flights” are operated upon prior request without restrictions. Communication is provided between Moscow, Vladivostok and Pyongyang.
Aeroflot, according to a Kommersant source in the industry, does not have valid permits to fly to the DPRK.
He does not know about the existence of designated carriers: before the suspension of air traffic in 2020 due to the pandemic, flights from the Russian Federation, according to him, were carried out “mainly by special aircraft.”
Aeroflot, Rosaviation and the Ministry of Transport declined to comment. As the head of Aurora, Konstantin Sukhorebrik, told Kommersant, the carrier confirmed to the Federal Air Transport Agency “the technical feasibility of starting flights from Vladivostok” after air traffic between the countries was resumed at the end of August. Currently, the only DPRK airline, Air Koryo, operates flights to Vladivostok twice a week. A ticket, according to its website, costs $230. Air Koryo also flies to Beijing. According to Flightradar24, Air Koryo has ten aircraft under 44 years old in its fleet; two Tu-204 (14 and 30 years old) and one An-148 (10 years old) fly abroad.
“In the new foreign policy realities, Russia is forming new partnerships, the construction and development of which without direct flights from Moscow is not very comfortable,” says the head of the “Airport” Oleg Panteleev. “The main interests of such flights - from business and political circles - are in Moscow.” Therefore, the availability of direct flights operated by Russian airlines would significantly increase the ability of Russian delegations to visit Pyongyang.
Russian airlines do not have narrow-body long-haul aircraft capable of operating non-stop flights between capitals, the expert says, “and wide-body aircraft will not be able to provide adequate loading for high-frequency traffic.” In this situation, flights with a connection in Vladivostok “are logical from a commercial point of view, although less comfortable for passengers.” Later, when the route is rolled out, he concludes, it will be possible to talk about the resumption of direct flights several times a week.
According to Kommersant’s interlocutors in the industry, air traffic to the DPRK now consists of “business travel traffic.”
The loading of planes from Pyongyang, they suggest, is mainly made up of “workers, mainly construction workers.” As Kommersant’s interlocutors in the tourism market told us, interest in the destination grew after President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in September, as well as the visit of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Pyongyang in October. According to Kommersant’s interlocutor at the business aviation operating company, in the fall they received several requests from VIP clients about the possibility of visiting Pyongyang on business jets. But the launch of tours, according to their information, is not expected until 2024.
Before the pandemic, tourists from the Russian Federation could visit the DPRK as part of organized tours. As Kommersant was told by two large travel agencies in Moscow, on average they were able to gather one group of 10–15 people every six months. Entry permits and visas were issued through intermediary companies in Vladivostok, collaborating with the consular department of the DPRK Embassy in the Russian Federation. Receiving documents took about three weeks, the price of the tour per person was from $500 to $1 thousand.
Usually, when new foreign destinations are opened, the authorities (Rosaviation and, from 2022, the Ministry of Economy) send a request to assess potential demand to the Russian Union of Tourism Industry; in 2023, it was not received for the DPRK, vice-president of the union Dmitry Gorin told Kommersant. He refrained from making other comments.
According to another Kommersant interlocutor in the tourism industry, despite “situational interest,” traffic to Pyongyang is unlikely to exceed several thousand people a year.
For comparison, he cited Iran, “a more open, but also sanctioned country” with direct flights from the Russian Federation: according to the FSB border service, only 20 thousand Russians visited it in 2022. Although, he adds, “of course, there will be exotic lovers who are ready to live a week without the Internet and under supervision for the sake of souvenirs and ticks on the map.”
The difficulty of getting to the DPRK is “more of a stereotype than the truth, this is an ordinary tourist trip,” says photo artist and author of the YouTube travel blog “Planetka” Pyotr Lovygin, who visited there for filming in 2017. The official program can be diversified for an additional fee - for example, tasting “a dog dish, visiting a Korean circus, bar or shooting gallery.” Control was carried out by a Russian-speaking guide and an “authority officer” accompanying us outside the hotel. The most vivid emotions, according to Mr. Lovygin, come from “the general atmosphere in the country and the mood of the population living according to strictly defined rules.”
The trip program is tight and includes almost no free time without a guide, notes Anton Lyadov, author of the blog “The People,” who filmed a film in the DPRK in 2019. At the same time, group members were given the opportunity to “purchase souvenirs or take photographs” on their own. The film crew entered by train from China, and passengers' belongings and phones were closely searched. The most impressive thing, he says, is how “people live in the unusual conditions of a closed society.” “Tourists nostalgic for the USSR,” he concluded, will definitely like it there, and other travelers will find it interesting and “safe, provided they follow the instructions and respect the symbols of the country.”