N. Korean airline now offers more than flights

North Korea's national carrier expands into everything from cigarettes and cola to gas stations and taxis as the United States weighs up more sanctions on Pyongyang.
An Air Koryo logo is displayed on a plane at the airport in Pyongyang, North Korea.
An Air Koryo logo is displayed on a plane at the airport in Pyongyang, North Korea.PHOTO: REUTERS

PYONGYANG/SEOUL • Even after disembarking from North Korea's Air Koryo plane at Pyongyang airport, it's difficult to miss the airline's brand.

The Air Koryo conglomerate makes cigarettes and fizzy drinks, besides owning a taxi fleet and petrol stations - and all have the same flying crane logo as the carrier.

The military-controlled airline expanded into consumer products in earnest in recent months, visitors to the isolated country say.

It was not clear if the diversification into the domestic market was related to the loss of many international routes when the United Nations slapped economic sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

Washington is now considering tougher measures, including a global ban on Air Koryo itself, to punish North Korea for continuing weapons tests, US officials have said.

But any US action on Air Koryo would not be binding on other nations and would have little effect unless joined by China and Russia - both of which have sought to introduce exceptions to United Nations sanctions on North Korea in the past.

"China may indeed agree to this kind of ban on Air Koryo since it seems like China and the US have reached an agreement that North Korea needs to be dealt with in some way. But the question is whether Russia will agree to sanctions against Air Koryo," said Associate Professor Sun Xingjie at China's Jilin University.

Air Koryo now flies only to Beijing and three other cities in China, and to Vladivostok in Russia. Flights to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Kuwait were dropped last year but just last month, Air Koryo added a route from Pyongyang to the Chinese city of Dandong, the main transit point for trade between the two countries.

Air Koryo has 15 active planes on its fleet, either Russian or Ukrainian-made, and uses refuelling, maintenance and repair facilities in China and Russia, according to aviation databases and UN documents.

Visitors to North Korea say the Air Koryo conglomerate, owned by the country's air force, is clearly expanding.

In 2015, the conglomerate launched its own brand of sky-blue taxis which now parade the streets of Pyongyang alongside cabs from at least eight other state-owned companies.

Air Koryo colas and cigarettes are available in shops across Pyongyang.

Air Koryo started branching into soft drinks late last year, said Mr Simon Cockerell of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which organises travel to North Korea.

It got into retail sales of petrol in January. "They have at least one petrol station in Pyongyang, perhaps two," Mr Cockerell said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see more Air Koryo products make it to market before too long."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2017, with the headline 'N. Korean airline now offers more than flights'. Print Edition | Subscribe