State media shows off solar and wind power plant


A visit by Kim Jong Un to inspect KPA Air Force Unit 1016 has provided a closer look at a new solar power plant built alongside an existing wind power plant.

KCNA carried a handful of images of the visited, but more were broadcast by Korean Central TV during its evening news program. Here’s one of the KCNA images. (more…)


TV Review: Hidden State: Inside North Korea


Al Jazeera’s “Fault Lines” takes on North Korea in its latest episode, scheduled for broadcast on Al Jazeera America on January 19, 2015, at 9pm ET.


The 30-minute program called “Hidden State: Inside North Korea,” is based around a 2014 reporting trip to the country by Teresa Bo. Bo is a former Latin American correspondent for the network and now works on the award-winning documentary series.

Bo attempts to understand what has changed since Kim Jong Un came to power and how U.S.-North Korean relations are viewed from Pyongyang. Two recent events: the hack on Sony Pictures and the report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK; give the the visit added poignance.

Viewers get an insight into life in Pyongyang, both for a reporter trying to cover the country and for a citizen — at least, for a citizen that has been asked to speak to foreign media.

Sin Gyong Ju, a family member of a Kim Il Sung University professor, lives in one of Pyongyang’s new apartment buildings and talks of her worry for the health of Kim Jong Un after he disappeared from public view for several weeks.

That worry is almost certainly for the benefit of the cameras, and so it’s interesting that North Korean officials steered the conversation towards such a topic, especially when state media was silent on Kim’s condition during the time he was absent.


The documentary doesn’t confine itself it Pyongyang.

“In North Korea, we spoke only to people chosen by the government,” Bo says during the report. “So to get a sense of what life was really like under Kim Jong Un, at least for some, we traveled to Seoul.”

In South Korea, the team met several defectors, who spoke of how they assumed they would die if caught defecting, but decided to try anyway. A woman speaks of how people carried poison, so they could commit suicide rather than be arrested and sent to the country’s labor camps.

Others speak of torture endured at the hands of the regime.

And the documentary also presents footage, said to be shot undercover in South Pyongan province, of couriers waiting for goods to arrive by train. They are said to be ferrying Chinese-made electronics, shampoo and DVDs to merchants.

Couriers wait to ferry Chinese goods to local markets, in a clip from Al Jazeera's Fault Lines documentary. (Photo: North Korea Tech)

Couriers wait to ferry Chinese goods to local markets, in a clip from Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines documentary. (Photo: North Korea Tech)

Analysis comes in part from Andrei Lankov, a well-known analyst of North Korean affairs at Seoul’s Kookmin University, who provides balance and context to the stories. A lot of it might be familiar for a specialist audience, but many don’t have detailed knowledge of North Korea and the program does a good job of explaining the situation.

It also manages to avoid relying on endless clips of troops marching through Kim Il Sung Square and dancers at the Arirang mass games.

North Korea watchers will notice at least one additional familiar face in the documentary: Alejandro Cao de Benós. The leader of the Korean Friendship Association appears in a scene sitting alongside Bo when she is interviewing the Ryu Kyong Il, of North Korea’s Committee on Foreign Relations.

Alejandro Cao de Benós, center, sits alongside Al Jazeera journalist Teresa Bo, left, in the TV station's Fault Lines documentary. (Photo: North Korea Tech)

Alejandro Cao de Benós, center, sits alongside Al Jazeera journalist Teresa Bo, left, in the TV station’s Fault Lines documentary. (Photo: North Korea Tech)

Last week, NK News reported on the large mark-ups that Cao de Benós charges foreign media crews that want to report from inside North Korea. Posing as a Swedish filmmaker, NK News was quoted a price of 46,000 euros for a three-person, seven day shoot. More than half of that amount was for filming permits and visas.

Hidden State: Inside North Korea” airs on Al Jazeera America on January 19, 2015, at 9pm ET. It will air again at 12am ET and 4am ET, and on January 24 at 7pm ET and 10pm ET. Fault Lines is also broadcast outside of the U.S. on Al Jazeera English.

Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang in May 2014 (UN Photo)

Pyongyang is booming, but in North Korea all is not what it seems


Kim Jong-un’s regime is not coming in from the cold just yet, and an increasingly prosperous capital stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the country

Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang in May 2014 (UN Photo)

Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang in May 2014 (UN Photo)

By , The Guardian, in Pyongyang

A bus passenger plays with her mobile phone. A well-dressed couple, sitting hand in hand, peruse a western menu. Fleets of glossy taxis sweep past new apartment blocks. Pink coats and leopard-print bags flash by amid the crowds. In another capital you would notice the lightness of the traffic, the drabness of the pedestrians, the lack of billboards and neon. In Pyongyang it is the hints of prosperity that catch the eye and even disconcert.

Three years ago, Kim Jong-un, not yet 30, took control of this impoverished country and its 25 million people after his father’s death. He has overseen a botched rapprochement with the US, a nuclear crisis, an excoriating United Nations human rights report and the execution of his uncle. North Korea sees the first three, at least, as evidence of the outside world’s continuing hostility. Others see the developments as an indication that his leadership is at best business as usual and at worst more unstable and unpredictable than that of his predecessors.

In recent weeks, the storm over The Interview has turbo-charged interest in the North’s capabilities and intentions, though experts still disagree over whether state-sponsored hackers were responsible for attacks on Sony in retaliation for the movie. The comedy depicts the leader’s assassination, encapsulating wishful thinking from outsiders that the Kim family’s rule – now in its seventh decade – can be ended swiftly and smoothly. After so many years of repression and poverty, it is hardly surprising if many believe only regime change can bring a better future for the country’s people.

Yet others see signs of a shift in a country that once outperformed its neighbours, but has struggled to feed its citizens for decades. Pyongyang is enjoying a building and consumption boom and the leadership is trying out new economic policies. There are efforts to incentivise individuals. Despite its reputation as a hermit kingdom, and Ebola restrictions which have banned tourists and imposed 21 days’ quarantine on other visitors, the North wants to send the message that it is open for business.

Is real change possible in a country where Kim Il-sung is still revered as “eternal president” 20 years after his death? And, in a system that has sanctified his decrees and derives its legitimacy from him, how can anyone improve on ideological perfection?

The official message is clear: “These measures are not economic reform,” said Prof Ri Gi-song of the Academy of Social Sciences in Pyongyang. “These are measures to facilitate companies and enterprises meeting production for the state, while at the same time improving the living standards for workers.”

Many western experts agree. “The regime wants the country to be modern, wants it to be prosperous, but it wants these things on its own terms,” said Marcus Noland, executive vice-president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “The government is attempting to tweak or improve the efficiency of the existing socialist or state-dominated system but it is not pursuing any fundamental reform.”

Murals and statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il still abound. There are still women struggling along the roadsides with bundles of firewood on their head, and men fishing along the Taedonggang river. Cranes and excavators have appeared around the city, but most of the construction work is still done by hand by the military. At night, the city is largely dark; power cuts are common.

Even so, the changes since my last visit four years ago are obvious. The glassy facade of the new, as-yet unopened, airport terminal; the extra kiosks on the streets selling snacks and colourful toys. There is a flashy new restaurant block, high-rise apartments, and department stores where you can buy Dior cosmetics, Siemens washing machines and blue and yellow polka-dot swimsuits. They may have something of a Soviet air, but they do have actual customers. There are also a noticeable number of women on bicycles and in trousers – two things that Kim Jong-il frowned upon.

New attractions include an ice rink, a bowling alley, a water park and a dolphinarium with a kitschy show. At the Mirim riding club, small children trot round a ring on well-fed ponies. A lesson costs them the equivalent of $5 (£3) an hour, just under a third of the official weekly GDP per capita in a country where the World Food Programme says most households have borderline or poor food consumption.

Our guide recounts Kim’s remarks on his last visit in a hushed voice: “I am always thinking about what we will create for the people next.”

But Pyongyang is a city of the elite, its population carefully controlled – as is foreign media coverage. Access for journalists is infrequent and regulated. On this trip we were accompanied at all times and were not able to go anywhere without prior approval. Our guides accommodated requests such as a visit to a department store, but turned down others such as going to a nearby market, saying it was under renovation. What we saw, then, was a small part of the nation’s most privileged city. “Provincial cities and the hinterland do not appear to be sharing in this prosperity, and indeed may be slipping backward,” said Noland [pdf]. “Inequality is rising; basic services like health and education appear to be deteriorating outside the capital, and some share of the population remains chronically food-insecure.”

It is not clear how sustainable Pyongyang’s mini-boom is. Some think it is financed by growing trade with China, particularly the export of minerals. Others suspect North Korea has been selling off gold reserves.

In theory, life in North Korea is still guided by Kim Jong-un at even the most minute level. The Great Leader not only oversees the country’s nuclear programme, but chose the colour of the paintwork in the dormitories of the Pyongyang textile factory (pink), the guide there says proudly. He has already been here twice; his father visited 13 times, his grandfather 48.

But in reality “there’s been a huge transformation in North Korea that hasn’t been noticed in the west,” said Rüdiger Frank of the University of Vienna – and it has come from the bottom, not the top.

Since the collapse of the public distribution system in the mid-90s, North Koreans have been forced to fend for themselves. They rely on markets and trading to feed their families – we see persimmon vendors tucked down side streets – and many work in China illicitly. Meanwhile, state entities from kindergartens to central ministries have set up businesses, often dealing in sectors wholly unrelated to their duties. They issue permits to entrepreneurs to work on their behalf, perhaps by opening a mine, for instance.

The rationale is that state bodies need not just to fund themselves, but also to provide food and other forms of welfare to their workers.

“Some of it does come back as food sold in the workplace – but basically it has legitimised marketisation, and the involvement of the government and party,” said Prof Hazel Smith of the University of Central Lancashire.

The distinction between state and private business has become increasingly hazy. Noland said: “It appears to be developing into a corrupt, opaque extraction-based economy common in central Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, which generates benefits for a small ruling clique and key regime constituencies, but does not deliver prosperity for the bulk of the population.”

Beneath a tiny elite at the top, benefits are spread unequally, said Smith. Even senior officials may not prosper if they are in an unpromising position. Small-time traders near the Chinese border may do well, but those nearer the heavily guarded boundary with South Korea are likely to struggle.

In an increasingly porous society – where many have worked abroad, or traded with Chinese people, or watched foreign movies – citizens are increasingly cynical and see the state as an impediment rather than a benefactor.

Now, it seems, the state is trying to play catch-up with its people by tweaking the official economy.

Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University believes Kim Jong-un’s youth means he has little choice but to risk introducing “truly radical” economic changes, probably accompanied by more political repression to offset the risk of destabilisation.

Since the system does not appear strong enough to outlive him, “the only chance of political and maybe physical survival, however slim, is to take the initiative, and start changing it.”

First came new agricultural policies, though debate remains about how far they have been implemented and how effective they have been. Households have taken responsibility for production within the larger collectivised teams. Farms can also sell surplus grain production to the government and reinvest the profits.

Next came the announcement of more than a dozen new special economic zones and the appointment of Pak Pong-ju, a reformer by North Korean standards, as prime minister.

Now individualised incentives and greater managerial leeway have spread to the manufacturing sector. Plants producing over quota can sell the excess and reinvest the extra income or use it to incentivise workers through bonuses. They can acquire extra supplies by trading with other factories.

At the 326 Cable Factory, official Kim Chol-ryong says the new system has already increased production and people’s sense of responsibility.

“This afternoon I’ll collect my salary and my pockets will be full. I might even have to bring a bag,” he joked.

Frank, of the University of Vienna, thinks there is real change going on and says he was thrilled by the acknowledgment of economic realities that he saw on a recent visit to Rason special economic zone, such as the bank displaying the real exchange rate ( about 100th of the official rate) on its wall: one euro to 10,476 North Korean won.

But it will take much more to boost the economy: “The individual zeal of the worker is not the problem,” he said.

Harvests have improved modestly in recent years, but rusting farm machinery is useless without spare parts or fuel. Desperately needed fertilisers are in short supply after the deterioration of relations with South Korea. Soya yields had soared, providing desperately needed protein. But last year they dropped again; the state rewarded other crops better.

In the manufacturing sector, the Chollima tile factory has proved such a draw for the leadership that Kim Jong-un declared he could feel his father’s spirit in every corner. It says it has 4,000 employees, working round the clock on three shifts, and boasts of its use of CNC (computer numerical control) technology, which officials hope will spur on the country’s economy.

But we see perhaps 50 workers in the cavernous buildings, and this is hi-tech of a distinctly old-fashioned kind. Tiles roll off the new digital printing machine at the rate of one every 10 seconds or so. It’s hard to know what accounts for the gap between rhetoric and reality; foreigners with experience in the country say there are some highly productive factories. It’s also hard to imagine the plant attracting the foreign investment it desperately needs.

Officials say there were 375 joint ventures as of 2009, about two-thirds of them from China. Egypt’s Orascom is one of the best known investors here, but others include a Swiss pharmaceutical joint venture. Chinese companies use cheap North Korean labour to produce clothes and others have outsourced animation to the country.

Paul Tjia, the Dutch businessman who has arranged our tour, says he has even had web-design work done there for clients – despite the lack of internet access – though he refuses to give any information on his deals.

But the North is not the new China, as some hope. China had 1.3 billion potential customers. And while some criticise Beijing’s statistics, at least it publishes regular economic performance measures. North Korea has not done so since 1967.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates the economy grew by just 1.1% in 2012, after stagnating over the previous six years.

Ri has a more optimistic reading, saying GDP per capita rose from $638 in 2007 to $904 in 2011, giving an annual growth rate of about 9% a year. But he was unable to offer fresher data: “We are trying to build an economic power while having a conflict with the US. Under these circumstances, we cannot make recent figures available to the public stage by stage.”

Even putting aside ethical considerations – some see investment in the North as exploitative, while others believe only engagement can improve lives there – the business case is far from straightforward.

These days there are many other places in the region with low wages, but decent infrastructure and greater political predictability. During last year’s nuclear crisis, the North abruptly closed the Kaesong industrial complex, which it runs with the South, despite the cost to its own economy. Even access to the country can be unreliable, as the Ebola restrictions have highlighted.

“Attracting foreign capital investment will be hard as long as the North threatens the world’s largest economy with a nuclear first strike and takes its citizens hostage,” said Noland. And fresh sanctions are likely to further deter investors if the regime carries out a fourth nuclear test, as it has threatened.

Prof Hong Chol-Hua, an expert at the Academy of Social Sciences in Pyongyang, assured us there are clear laws on foreign investment and arbitration, protecting the rights of investors. “Conflicts rarely arise in joint ventures,” he said, when asked whether a North Korean court or panel has ever ruled in favour of a foreign investor.

China’s Xiyang group, which committed $38m to an iron ore processing plant, said publicly in 2012 that it had been “cheated” and that working in the North was a nightmare. The North blames Xiyang for failing to meet its obligations.

“The way to think of it is as a small, economic adjunct to China,” said Smith. But Pyongyang has often shown an astounding indifference to, and even contempt for, Beijing’s support, fearing its dominance. Recently, China poured $350m into building a bridge across the Yalu river to expand trade. It ends in a dirt track on the North Korean side.

With bilateral relations at a low, the North is wooing other countries, including Russia and Japan. Neither seem a realistic alternative, especially given the state of the latter’s economy.

None of this gives one much cause for optimism about the North’s prospects. Yet Frank believes that in the long run the changes the government is introducing may develop a momentum of their own. “They will achieve something and then the whole thing will stagnate, and it will force the leadership to make a decision – and I believe that decision will be genuine, systematic reform. I’m optimistic,” he said.

Lankov and others suggest the government could call a halt to changes at any time as it has in the past. But Frank argues the disastrous attempt at curbing markets through currency reform in 2009 has shown the cost of turning back from change.

“They are riding the tiger. Of course they are afraid of being eaten by it. But at least they are trying,” he said.


North Korea: ‘popular masses enjoy genuine human rights’


Pyongyang issues 50,000 word report hitting back at international criticism of its human rights record, accusing the west of ‘false and reactionary’ agenda to interfere with state sovereignty.

By , The Guardian.

North Korea has published a 50,000-word report hitting back at international criticism of restrictions on freedoms in the country and insisting that that its citizens “enjoy genuine human rights”.

In contrast to a United Nations publication issued earlier this year detailing grave atrocities in the country, Pyongyang painted a positive picture of its rights situation, saying the “popular masses” are free from slavery, torture and have the right to enjoy a free trial. A spokesperson said human rights was of utmost importance to the government, enshrined in the country’s foundations.

Pyongyang had previously said it would prove that the future is “bright and rosy” for citizens living in one of the world’s most closed societies, consistently listed among the worst human rights offenders. The report accuses the UN of acting as a US puppet, and pursuing an agenda designed to interfere with its internal affairs.

Pyongyang insists it has made efforts towards international cooperation but that state sovereignty is one of the core principles of its approach to human rights and must be upheld. The Korean Central News Agency, a state body, said the finished product: “lays bare the false and reactionary nature of the reckless anti-North Korean human rights racket.”

The report, written by the DPRK Association for Human Rights, said NGOs, academics and human rights experts in the country had contributed to its findings, which detail the “characteristics of the socialist system”, the DPRK’s policies and its “actual human rights performance.”

It also touches on social and cultural rights, including education, health and the “right to participate in scientific and cultural activities,” as well as the rights of women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities.

It repeatedly takes aim at the US and its allies, which it accuses of being “steeped in repugnancy toward the DPRK”.

The UN report published in February detailed the findings of a year-long investigation which found systemic human rights abuses suffered at the hands of the regime.

The dossier describes executions, rapes and torture of up to 120,00 prisoners held up in the secret prison system, known as kwanliso. The prison camps, which also appear to be have been identified by Google Earth, were not mentioned in the DPRK’s report.

The UN conclusion was that a number of the abuses were very likely to be crimes against humanity, and the chair of inquiry Michael Kirby wrote to North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un to say he, along with his government, could face trial at The Hague, though Kirby has admitted that it’s unlikely he’ll be appearing any time soon.

North Korea calls the UN report a “dead document” based on speculation and hostility. The report’s authors are labelled as “despicable human rights abusers” and puppets for the US, and it describes the 300 defectors who testified to the UN to tell of the abuses they had witnessed as “human scum who betrayed their homeland and people”.

The report comes a few weeks before the UN General assembly where US secretary of state John Kerry is expected to meet South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-se to discuss rights in the North.

Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang in May 2014 (UN Photo)

How the media circus reported North Korea’s pro-wrestling throwdown


When the isolated country hosted dozens of reporters, athletes and minor celebrities at its International Pro-Wrestling Contest in Pyongyang at the weekend, opinions on the experience were mixed to say the least. We took a look at the coverage.

By Maeve Shearlaw, The Guardian

Pyongyang is recovering from its International Pro-Wrestling Contest which saw North Koreans line up next to international wrestlers, including three Americans, over two days.

The event was organised by Antonio Inoki, a former a Japanese wrestler-turned-politician, best known for going up against Muhammad Ali in 1979.

Before the event last weekend, Inoki spoke of his hope that the conference would help ease international tensions, after North Korea agreed to reopen a probe on Japanese citizens abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s.

Sports officials for the North Korean government echoed that the tournament would be held in the spirit of “independence, peace and friendship,” with North Korean wrestlers taking part in demonstrations with visiting contestants.

With wrestling as the focus, North Korea opened its doors to the international media in the latest instalment of Kim Jong-un’s brand of sports diplomacy. The DPRK has previously hosted a basketball tournament with Dennis Rodman and next month they will send dozens of athletes to the Asian games.

So what was the verdict? We look at how people reported from a country they may only visit once in their lifetimes, from the competitors to the seasoned hacks and the celebrities there for a good time.

The contestants

American pro-wrestler Jon “Strongman” Andersen was very complimentary about the show, posting an dramatic Instagram shot of his image on screen, towering over his performance. He described the production as “top notch,” along with everything else from “police escorts to the symphony”. He later took to Twitter to post a video of the event using the hashtag #wrestlingforpeace.

Fellow contestant Bob “The Beast” Sapp was equally as enthusiastic, taking to Twitter to share YouTube videos, action shots and a formal photo from the press conference. One fan tweeted: “I seriously can’t remember the last time I saw something that cool,” adding the hashtag #SappDiplomacy.


Journalists in attendance were under no illusions that their trips were fully stage-managed. In a live broadcast from Pyongyang on Monday, CNN journalist Will Ripley pointed out the armband he was required to wear at all times to identify him as a member of the press, describing their movements as “tightly-controlled”.

Then, in what they reported as an unexpected twist, Ripley’s team were taken off their advertised schedule a day later to interview three American captives held by North Korean authorities. Kenneth Bae, who was sentenced to 15 years hard labour in 2013 after being accused of crimes against the state, Matthew Todd Miller, detained for “rash behaviour” after reportedly tearing up his passport at immigration, and Jeffrey Edward Fowle, who is suspected of leaving a Bible in North Korea, though a spokesman for his family said he had not been in the country for his church.

CNN described the set up as “bizarre”, with each giving “eerily similar” statements in their allotted five minutes with the media team.

Other journalists weighed in on the struggles of reporting from North Korea. Washington Post’s Anna Fifield said: “It’s such a thrill to get an elusive visa and see this closed society with your own eyes, yet so maddening when you realize that you’re moving through a kind of real-life Truman Show.”

This was her sixth trip and it had a familiar ring. The daily itinerary set by the government was “an endless succession of visits to monuments” and she was only given access to pre-selected people. But she said she had seen some changes; nine years ago mobile phones were left at departures, now journalists are able tweet and write freely from their hotel rooms. “The problem is that I can only tweet and write what I see, and I can only see what they want me to see. But the way I figure it, it’s always better to see something than nothing”, wrote Fifield.

For some, like Associated Press’ Pyongyang bureau chief Eric Talmadge, it was business as usual. Talmadge filed a range of stories, as well as some impressive Instagram and Twitter pictures.

Fugees rapper Pras was also there, and was credited with brining the Ice Bucket challenge to North Korea. He said that his crew tended to stick out when they travelled together but that North Korean people had been good to them.

And then there were ringside tweets from Michael Spavor (@mpspavor), who describes himself as a “private consultant involving business, sports and cultural exchanges with the DPRK” and has been credited with facilitating one of Rodman’s trips to the North.

It’s safe to say the tournament garnered international attention. But to what effect? Speaking to NK News, North Korea expert Andrei Lankov said that wrestling was “a rather strange activity”, which may serve to reinforce international opinion of North Korea as a “weird place”, but Lankov is of the school of thought that any exchange, no matter how small or managed with the outside world, is better than nothing.

They also spoke to Joshua Stanton of the One Free Korea blog, who argues that history has shown that previous events have not amounted to any real change.

The drop zone of the first stage of a North Korean long-range rocket launch in 2009 (Image: ICAO)

Who’s using North Korean airspace?


Last week I wrote about the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations on U.S. carriers or aircraft using North Korean airspace. They prohibit flight in most of the skies controlled by Pyongyang but allow it — with caution — in a portion east of 132 degrees East latitude.

The ban is in place because of North Korea’s unpredictable short- and medium-range missile launches and uncertainties over just how good the coordination is between civil air traffic controllers and the military. The rules are in place to avoid an aircraft getting shot down, either by mistake or due to a misunderstanding.

So, I decided to take a closer look at what airlines, if any, use North Korean airspace.

I recorded a day’s worth of activity on Flightradar24, which maps the world’s air travel in realtime. The data for East Asia comes from volunteers in Japan, South Korea and Russia with radios that receive ADS-B transmissions from aircraft and feed them to the site. The data identifies the flight, speed, altitude and current location. Not all of North Korean airspace is covered, so domestic flights are generally missed, but most others were caught.

So, here’s 24 hours in North Korean airspace:

Direct Path to Europe

As can be seen, the North Korean skies are a good deal less busy that those of neighboring Japan and South Korea but air traffic controllers in Pyongyang aren’t idle all day. Several European airlines, which are not subject to FAA rules, fly through the area each day, including on the western side of the 132 degrees East latitude line, which the FAA has said is too dangerous for U.S. carriers.

The flights, operated by Lufthansa, Air France, Turkish Airlines, KLM and Finnair, are between Europe and the central and west Japan cities of Nagoya and Osaka (Kansai International Airport).

Here’s Lufthansa flight LH736 close to arrival at Nagoya. It’s being followed by three other European airliners.

Lufthansa's LH736 is followed by three other aircraft through North Korean airspace on Saturday, July 26, 2014.

Lufthansa’s LH736 is followed by three other aircraft through North Korean airspace on Saturday, July 26, 2014.

Not surprisingly, the same airlines take the same route when going home. Flights to Europe from Tokyo’s Narita and Haneda airports stay outside of North Korean skies because they are further east.

Here are the European flights I found:

  • Air France 291 / 292: Paris – Kansai – Paris
  • Alitalia 793: Kansai – Rome (AZ 792 from Rome to Kansai avoids North Korea)
  • Finnair 77 / 78: Helsinki – Kansai – Helsinki
  • Finnair 79 / 80: Helsinki – Nagoya – Helsinki
  • KLM 867 / 868: Amsterdam – Kansai – Amsterdam
  • Lufthansa 736 / 737: Frankfurt – Nagoya – Frankfurt
  • Lufthansa 740 / 741: Frankfurt – Kansai – Frankfurt

Russian Dog-Leg

From Seoul, flights on Russia’s Aurora Airlines HZ 5636 / 5637 will take passengers through North Korean-controlled skies, but the airline appears to deliberately avoid the area where U.S. flights are banned. At the 132 degees East line, it makes a dog-leg and continues on its journey between Vladivostok and Seoul’s Incheon airport.

An Aeroflot flight from Vladivostok to Incheon avoids flying west of the 132 degrees East line

An Aurora flight from Vladivostok to Incheon avoids flying west of the 132 degrees East line

Flights on S7 Airlines from Vladivostok to Hong Kong, S 7545 / 7546, take a similar route, flying directly south from Vladivostok before turning. And flights from Incheon to Yakutsk on Yakutia Airlines SYL 505 / 506 also gives North Korea a wide berth.

South Korea airlines avoid North Korean airspace in its totality, as you might expect. Here’s the Asiana flight from Incheon to Vladivostok, OZ 570. It adds about 35 minutes to the flight time.

Asiana's OZ 570 avoids North Korean airspace en route to Vladivostok.

Asiana’s OZ 570 avoids North Korean airspace en route to Vladivostok.

Pyongyang Sightseeing

For perhaps the best view of North Korea without actually going there, China Southern Airlines offers a flight between Tokyo’s Narita and Shenyang that flies directly over the country, crossing close to Pyongyang.

CZ 621 / 622, which also carries a Japan Airlines JL 5021 / 5022 codeshare number, flies right over the center of the country, as does a second flight later in the day, CZ 627 / 628.

CZ628 from Shenyang to Tokyo's Narita, shown flying over the heart of North Korea.

CZ628 from Shenyang to Tokyo’s Narita, shown flying over the heart of North Korea.

It was this flight that North Korean missiles came close to hitting back in March. The missiles passed through the airspace the jet had occupied just 7 minutes earlier.

It’s easy to see why that might happen. Rather than crossing perpendicularly, the China Southern flight heads directly to and from the country, along the same rough path as the missile test firings.

China Southern’s flight from Kansai to Shenyang, CZ 611 / 612 takes a similar route. It also shares a JAL flight number, 5023 / 5024.

It’s perhaps surprising that China Southern hasn’t rerouted the flight after the March incident.

Japan’s All Nippon Airways takes a very different route for its NH 925 / 926 that flies between the same two cities. The difference in flight times? 25 minutes.

All Nippon Airways NH 926 avoids North Korean airspace when it flies from Shenyang to Tokyo.

All Nippon Airways NH 926 avoids North Korean airspace when it flies from Shenyang to Tokyo.

In fact, China Southern’s direct path over North Korea en-route to Shenyang is all the more surprising considering its CZ 631 / 632 between Kansai and Harbin flies around North Korean skies rather than taking a more direct route.

China Southern CZ 632 from Kansai to Harbin avoids North Korean airspace.

China Southern CZ 632 from Kansai to Harbin avoids North Korean airspace.

Domestic Flights

Because Flightradar24 doesn’t have anyone contributing data from North Korea, coverage of the skies above its land is spotty, but you can spot a flight in the animation running from Pyongyang to Vladivostok and back. It’s Air Koryo JS 271 / 272.

Air Koryo 271 en-route from Pyongyang to Vladivostok

Air Koryo 271 en-route from Pyongyang to Vladivostok

The Pyongyang FIR with an additional line added around 132 degrees East

What’s going on with North Korean airspace?


The shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine has raised awareness of a series of restrictions the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has placed on aircraft operating around the world, including over North Korea.

North Korean airspace extends well beyond the land borders of the country to include a large portion of the Sea of Japan (East Sea) and, to a lesser extent, a region over the Yellow Sea (West Sea.) It’s called the Pyongyang FIR (flight information region) and is shown in the map below.

The FAA regulations date back to April 1997, when North Korea began allowing foreign airlines to fly through its airspace. That included U.S. carriers, but they couldn’t exercise the option because the Office of Foreign Assets Control prohibited payment of the so-called overflight fees. On April 7, OFAC lifted that restriction, effectively clearing the way for American air carriers to use North Korean airspace, but it didn’t last long.

Less than two weeks later, on April 18, the FAA issued Special Federal Aviation Regulation number 79 (SFAR 79) saying “immediate action is necessary to prohibit certain flight operations within DPRK airspace.”

The FAA cited safety concerns, but specifically the danger of civilian aircraft being shot down.

“The DPRK air defense system includes modern surface-to-air missile systems and interceptor aircraft capable of engaging aircraft at cruising altitudes,” the notice said. “The FAA has been unable to determine the current level of coordination and cooperation between civil air traffic authorities and air defense commanders for civil aircraft overflights, including military rules of engagement if an aircraft strays from its assigned flight route. Any lack of coordination presents a risk that civil aircraft operating in the Pyongyang FIR west of 132 degrees east longitude could be misidentified as a threat by the DPRK.”

“Given the DPRK’s air defense capabilities, including its rules of engagement and limited capability to distinguish between military and civil aircraft, the FAA has determined that civil aircraft operating in the Pyongyang FIR west of 132 degrees east longitude could be misidentified and inadvertently engaged by the DPRK.”

I’ve added the 132 degrees East line to the map below in light blue. (Click to make the image larger)

The FAA however extended its prohibition to the entire Pyongyang FIR, including the area east of the 132 degrees east line, pending review of safety information from the DPRK. It stayed that way for almost a year, with the FAA allowing flights in the eastern most part of the region from February 1998.

The Pyongyang FIR with an additional line added around 132 degrees East

The Pyongyang FIR with an additional line added around 132 degrees East (Image: ICAO)

The regulation covers all U.S. airlines; FAA-licensed pilots except those flying U.S.-licensed aircraft for foreign carriers; and operators flying U.S.-registered aircraft, unless they are foreign carriers.

There are a couple of additional exceptions. U.S. pilots and aircraft can be taken into Pyongyang with U.S. government or FAA approval, typically on diplomatic or humanitarian missions, and in emergency situations.

The FAA revisited these restrictions in June this year.

“U.S. operators flying in and around the Pyongyang FIR east of 132 degrees east longitude are advised that North Korea has a history of launching short-range ballistic missiles with no warning. In March 2014, North Korea launched two medium-range missiles. These launches were into the Pyongyang FIR and impacted the Sea of Japan beyond the boundary of SFAR 79,” the FAA said. “U.S. operators are advised that future launches may occur with little or no warning and should use caution when planning for and operating in and around the Pyongyang FIR east of 132 degrees east longitude.”

The FAA said it would review the need for the caution by November this year.

While North Korea’s recent short- and medium-range missiles fell within the boundaries of its airspace, the countries long-range missiles overshoot the region. On occasions in the past when that’s been likely, the DPRK authorities have issued warnings to air and sea traffic on some occasions.

For example, in 2009 the country advised the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that it would be launching a long-range missile. Here’s a map of the Pyongyang FIR with the drop zone for the first-stage indicated as “danger area 1.” The second-stage of the rocket overflew Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean.

This map also shows the various airways that cross through the Pyongyang FIR, including several in the area to the east of the 132 degrees east longitude line.

The drop zone of the first stage of a North Korean long-range rocket launch in 2009 (Image: ICAO)

The drop zone of the first stage of a North Korean long-range rocket launch in 2009 (Image: ICAO)

The FAA’s June advisory was accompanied by an International Flight Information Manager (IFIM) notice that specifically mentioned two of the air routes that can be see in the map above.

“Both No Dong medium-range ballistic missiles and SCUD short-range ballistic missiles are capable of flying beyond the boundary of SFAR 79,” it said. “Such activities pose a potential hazard to flight operations, including operators flying on air routes B467 and G711.”

The FAA also asked pilots to report any observed launches.

Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Dept., answers questions at a briefing on July 16, 2014.

US, others complain to ICAO over North Korean missile launches


The United States and several other nations have written to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) over North Korea’s failure to notify it of missile launches.

Over the past couple of weeks, short and medium-range missile have been fired by North Korea into the sea to the east of the country on a handful of occasions. Each launch took place without a standard warning to air and ship traffic.

Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Dept., answers questions at a briefing on July 16, 2014.

Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Dept., answers questions at a briefing on July 16, 2014.

“On July 8, the U.S. co-signed a letter to the president of ICAO expressing concern with the serious threat posed to international aviation posed by North Korea’s recent rocket and missile launches,” said Jen Psaki, U.S. State Dept. spokesperson, at a news briefing on Wednesday.

“North Korea’s decision to conduct these launches without prior notification threatens the safety of international aviation and demonstrates North Korea’s disregard for the rules and regulations of the organization and hence our effort to express our concern,” she said.

News of the letter was first reported in South Korean media outlets.

North Korea has used ICAO and International Maritime Organization (IMO) channels in the past to warn of rocket launches. When it attempted to launch a satellite into space in March 2012 and successfully launched one in December 2012, it issued detailed warnings through the international organizations. Those warned of the launch and also the areas in which the first and second stages of the rocket were expected to fall to the sea.

A number of international air routes traverse the area through which the missiles flew, giving rise to the possibility that an aircraft could be hit. While the chances of such an impact are remote, the warnings are typically issued to keep aircraft away from such danger.

In March this year, a Chinese airliner en route to Tokyo flew through an area that was crossed by a North Korean missile seven minutes later, according to reports.

I’ve asked the State Dept. for a copy of the letter and will update this post if I receive it.

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