When most people think of North Korea they imagine a dictatorship closed to all outsiders. Surprisingly, it’s actually quite easy to visit. The hardest part is applying for a Chinese visa, as you have to go through China (or Russia) first. Here’s what it’s like to fly from Beijing to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.
Air Koryo is the national (and only) airline of North Korea. They used to fly to a surprising number of places like East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and all over Russia but most of these flights have been cancelled due to the fall of communism and the airline being banned in the EU. Now a quick direct fight from Beijing is the easiest way to go.
The check-in and boarding was all handled by Air China employees, even though Air China runs its own competing flight.
I was very surprised to see a rather modern large plane waiting on the tarmac. On my first visit to North Korea seven years ago, we flew an ancient Russian plane with big plush seats and tons of legroom.
That old Russian plane had additional seats that fold down into the aisle, so they can completely fill the plane, passengers all the way across.
Despite all those seats, Sil (who visited even earlier than me – 5 years earlier) said that one of the passengers on her flight was confused when he realized that the seat on his boarding pass didn’t exist. The rows just didn’t go that high. After some discussion among the Koreans, the tourist was given another seat and a Korean man moved to the toilet. That actually worked out pretty well for the Korean – he didn’t even need to leave his “seat” to smoke!
Well, things have changed. No one was without a seat this time and, shockingly, the plane didn’t fill up with cigarette smoke.
I don’t recall having to fill out many (any?) forms last time but now they want lots of information.
They’re most concerned about books that might be illegal and images that might embarrass the leadership. Bibles are strictly prohibited and distributing religious material is a serious crime.
Amazingly, you’re now allowed to bring a mobile phone into the country. Seven years ago I handed over my phone when I arrived at the airport and didn’t see it again until I left the country.
The flight is only a little over an hour but the stewardesses were wonderful, treating everyone to the famous Koryo Burger.
Flying over fields of rice and little villages, we soon landed in Pyongyang.
Seven years ago the airport felt like a military base. In 2015 a brand new terminal was built. It feels positively modern, a sign of things to come on my journey through the Hermit Kingdom.