Who’s using North Korean airspace?

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

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

9 Comments on "Who’s using North Korean airspace?"

  1. Beware that only a small percentage of the aircraft transmit their location.

  2. Hey. Great article, was a really good and interesting read! Being a FR24 contributor myself I just wanted to add that the absence of records of DPRK domestic flights is not primarily because of the low coverage of DPRK airspace but rather due to the fact that most of Air Koryo’s (the only airline carrying out domestic flights) planes are not equipped with an ADS-B transponder (iirc only the Tu-204s + An-148 have got one, namely P-632, P-633 and P-671). If a plane is not transmitting ADS-B data, it can only appear on FR24 using MLAT (basically a form of triangulation), a method which as far as I am informed is not yet available worldwide.

    • Thanks, that’s interesting. I clearly caught one on its way up to Vladivostok but none en-route to China. I thought that also might be because of poor coverage within China itself too.

  3. llvi: About 60% of global passenger aircraft transmit their position and more than 95% of transcontinental flights transmit their position. All the data in the article is real data and not estimated.

  4. Very interesting analysis of what is going on over korean airspace. A very good job!

  5. Interesting read in light of the recent Malaysian flight shot down in Ukraine.

    It would be interesting to know how much the North Korean people charge airlines to use their airspace, though.

  6. AF291/AF292 stopped using this route a while ago and is now avoiding even chinese airspace. I used AF292 this year in April and had GPS running during the flight and I can confirm FR’s data.

  7. I enjoy using Flight Radar Premium on my mobiles and computers to check out which planes are going where (the aircraft are taking off from San Francisco International and I can hear them in the distance).

    Anyway, on occasion I’ll peep around the globe to see what else is going on with jet travel. For the past months I have looked at North Korea and have not seen even a hint of an aircraft. I finally got curious why this was the case. So I turned to trusty ol’ Google and found your great article.

    Anyone curious about this stark phenomena, Flight Radar has a free version that enables you to see air traffic. (Premium gives some additional features and functionality.)

    It is really really amazing to see this example of just how isolated North Korea is from the rest of the world. Hundreds of planes are in the air in all the major cities of the world, 24/7. But what really sticks out is North Korea.

    No matter the dictator or ruthless leader, I can’t see anyone enjoying being this isolated. Maybe this is why the little dictator causes mischief, murder, and mayhem from time to time, to remind the world he’s there and to get attention.

    P.S. This reminds me of night photographs taken by an astronaut a few years back. All the world’s nations were brightly lit, all except North Korea, that had a few lights in the capital. But that was it.

    Another illustration of the nation’s isolation and suffering of its people from the lack of prosperity and modernization. No planes, no lights, no cars, no supermarkets, no food, just one in three of your friends and relatives willing to snitch you out to the government for your unpatriotic activities.

  8. Having flown regularly between Europe and Japan for more than 30 years, I remember when Thai Airlines was the only airline allowed to fly a Great Circle route over the USSR. Other airlines had to take the ‘Southern Route’ or fly via Anchorage. Rumor had it that Thai Airlines paid the Russians for the privilege of entering their airspace. I wonder if KLM, Air France, Lufthansa, etc., pay the North Koreans for overflying their territory?

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