North Korea Want To Buy New Passenger Jets For Air Koryo

North Korea have told Russia they are interested in buying new passenger planes for their flag carrying airline, Air Koryo. Updated planes could see them flying to more destinations, but would the Russians be allowed to do a deal with the tightly sanctioned nation?

Air Koryo Ilyushin
Air Koryo are looking to update their motley collection of Soviet planes. Photo: Wikimedia

Meeting over the weekend, a delegation of visiting Russian lawmakers discussed civil aviation with North Korean officials. From this meeting, it appears that North Korea are in the market for new aircraft. In particular, they are looking to purchase passenger jets from their friendly Russian neighbors for their flag carrying airline Air Koryo.

Sergei Neverov, the deputy speaker of the Russian State Duma lower parliament house, is quoted as saying:

“At a meeting at the North Korean foreign ministry, we touched upon the issue of civil aviation and flight safety. We maintain air service between Pyongyang and Vladivostok and, naturally, we would like to see more advanced and safer planes serving this route.”

North Korea are currently unable to purchase new aircraft as they are under strict sanctions by the UN in relation to their nuclear program. Neverov seemed to suggest that a sale of aircraft by Russia would be possible even with the UNSC measures in place. However, it remains to be seen if this is indeed the case

Who are Air Koryo?

As the flag carrying airline of North Korea, Air Koryo don’t exactly have a prominent position on the global stage. Although they’ve existed since 1950 under various names, the end of the cold war and collapse of communism really stunted their growth.

Air Koryo IL-76
Air Koryo had a focus on cargo using aircraft like this Air Koryo Ilyushin IL76. Photo: Wikimedia

Branded as Air Koryo in 1992, they focused on cargo carrying capacity for many years until, in 2007,  they purchased a Tupolev Tu-204-300. With the range and capacity of this aircraft, Air Koryo hoped they would soon start flying to Europe. However, due to safety and maintenance concerns, the airline was added to the list of banned carriers in the EU.

The airline focused on Asian connections, ordering another Tu-204-300 and a Tu-204-100 in 2009. These were used to fly to Dalin, China as well as Shanghai Pudong.

Air Koryo Tu-204
Only the Tupolev Tu-204 is allowed in the EU. Photo: Wikimedia

In 2010, they were allowed to resume operations in the EU with the Tu-204, but only with this aircraft. They began service to Kuala Lumpur in 2011 but ceased in 2017 following the poisoning of Kim Jong-nam at KL International Airport.

Presently they fly only to Beijing, Shenyang and Vladivostok. Their current fleet is a mish-mash of Russian aircraft, including five Antonov aircraft, five Ilushins and six Tupolev planes.

Ongoing sanctions

Air Koryo hasn’t bought any new aircraft since 2013 and is desperate need of updating their fleet. However, so far this has proved impossible for them, as ongoing sanctions mean they are denied access to the likes of Boeing and Airbus.

The 1718 Sanctions Committee Panel of Experts, directed by the UNSC, has decided that the carrier operates under the military of North Korea. As such, all UN member state are banned from selling any transportation vehicles, including aircraft, to North Korea.

Air Koryo
Ongoing sanctions prohibit Air Koryo from sourcing planes from member states. Photo: Wikimedia

North Korea have sought sanctions relief by pledging to denuclearize the peninsula and to cease any missile provocations. However, recent talks between Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump have ended in failure, so at the present time, the removal of sanctions seems a long way off.

Whether their desire for new aircraft will be fulfilled or not remains to be seen. But, if the Russians do sell them planes without the express permission of the UNSC, there could be some tough questions to answer.