Meet the AvGeek Who Has Been to North Korea 20 Times
Being an aviation geek often results in memorable adventures while chasing a particular airplane in faraway places — sometimes, places that can be very hard to get to. That is the case of North Korea, the isolated, nuclear-armed dictatorship currently locked in a standoff with the United States: a land few Westerners have ever visited, but which many AvGeeks, attracted by its vintage Soviet-era airplanes, know better than most.
And among AvGeeks, there is no one who knows North Korea better than Charles Kennedy, a London-based record company owner who has been there, by his own account, 20 times — thanks to his side gig as a guide for Juche Travel Services, a British-owned tour company specializing in North Korea.
I met Charles in in 2014, fittingly on an airplane, en route from Montreal to Amsterdam on the last passenger flight of the McDonnell Douglas MD-11. It was one of my first forays reporting on the world of AvGeeks, and a prominent member of the community I had spoken with before the flight in the Air France - KLM business class lounge, Bernie Leighton, had described him to me admiringly as a “grandfather of the hobby.”
With North Korea in the news prominently, few people are as well positioned as Charles to give us a sense of what visiting the closed-off nation is like, especially when it comes to aviation. North Korea is gradually opening up to visitors, and happens to be one of the last places in the world where one can fly on Soviet airplanes that have been phased out long ago even in their native Russia. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea may be a totalitarian dictatorship, but it is also an AvGeek dream.
Charles is an AvGeek’s AvGeek, a 41-year old recently minted private pilot who maintains a healthy sense of humor about his obsession — “It’s an autism-spectrum thing,” he told me when we got off the MD-11 in Amsterdam — and has the stamps in his Australian passport to prove his globetrotting plane-nerd cred. “I’m just glad my autistic gene manifested itself around air travel, or I would never have been to Lebanon, Somalia or Somaliland,” he said.
TPG caught up with Charles via email as the North Korea - US crisis unfolded. While most Americans will be barred from traveling there beginning in September, tension has simmered down from the point where the North Korean regime threatened to nuke both the US and its military base on Guam and US president Donald Trump said threats would be met with “fire and fury.”
Charles’ answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
So how did you become an old North Korea hand?
I had been to a couple countries off the beaten track, or portrayed as hostile to Westerners, chasing old planes, and fell in love with both: Lebanon and Iran. My travels in both have been some of the most fulfilling experiences of my life, for Lebanon's cuisine, incredibly vibrant capital Beirut and stunning beaches and mountains, and for Iran's history, culture and hospitality. I never experienced any hostility in either.
In mid-2010, a couple of buddies in the aviation world suggested we participate in a three-day trip to North Korea. I was lucky that I had a personal travel history that had informed me sufficiently to imagine something more nuanced than what sensationalist media headlines would have a first-timer believe, so I didn't really have any concerns about going. For an AvGeek the means of transportation was certainly enticing — a 1974-build Tupolev Tu-154 in, and a totally unique custom-built Tu-204-300 back.
The country at that time was a very austere place — basically zero car traffic, zero contact with locals, very little color in the cities, very little electricity at night. Our local guides sat equally spaced throughout the bus to ensure no photography, except at approved sites. So in fact it was nothing like Lebanon or Iran, it was a pretty odd place and pretty dark in every sense. I would never have believed I would make at least 19 more visits in the years to come.
The country has changed quite a bit with the ascension to the top job of Kim Jong Un, with traffic, restaurants, and much more electricity generated in the capital. Rules for tourists have greatly relaxed.
Can you only fly in on the state airline Air Koryo, or do international carriers fly into Pyongyang too?
Air Koryo flies most days to Beijing, a couple of times a week to Shenyang (a Chinese city with a large Korean population), a couple of times a week to Shanghai, and once a week to Vladivostok, Russia. Air China flies a 737 a few times a week from Beijing. There has been talk of other carriers, such as Chinese low cost carrier Spring Air from Shanghai, and the intention of the new Kalma airport at Wonsan on the east coast is to attract Chinese carriers, but thus far they haven't materialized.
What is it like to fly on Air Koryo?
Air Koryo is definitely unique in that a total fleet of four aircraft operating a total of one or two flights per day is stunningly low for a country which, compared purely by population in the region, is approximately analogous to Taiwan. However, for the end user the experience is positive and predictable. Check-in is handled by Air China in Beijing's terminal 2 which, while not the nicest, is shared by SkyTeam carriers such as KLM, Delta, China Southern and Korean Air.
The meal service in economy is the famous Koryo Burger, which while not super appealing is still a hot meal of sorts. Drinks service includes a foretaste of one of the highlights of travelling to North Korea, the superb local beer Taedonggang. There are a few genuine oddities, such as musical performances from the top notch and super patriotic Moranbong Band playing on flip-down screens with the soundtrack broadcasting through the PA. Cabin crew are all female, very young, and clearly selected on the basis of good looks. They speak enough English to perform safety duties and serve food and drink, and sometimes engage in fairly basic conversation. Overall Air Koryo are a very nice airline to fly with, and their famous Skytrax one-star rating is because they fail to fulfil essential criteria such as having a website, a frequent flier program, codeshares et cetera. The onboard product, both soft and hard, is very good.
The new Pyongyang airport is now complete and has three jetbridges, and inside the terminal is sparkling polished marble and chrome, creating a very positive first impression. Customs are very thorough — Reading material is logged, laptops switched on and checked, and on occasion binoculars and guide books confiscated and returned on departing the country. But the officials are never rude or hostile, and the process only takes a minute per passenger and is pretty routine. In the old days they would take mobile phones for the duration of the trip.
What are the sights, sounds and emotions an aviation geek experiences in North Korea?
North Korea also has a vintage fleet, which does not fly outside the country, but is kept airworthy as a kind of strategic reserve for contingencies. Today these are all unique in the world and have summoned AvGeeks from every corner of the world to fly on: Tupolev Tu-134 twinjets, a pair of very elderly Tupolev Tu-154Bs delivered back in 1974, North Korea's first jet airliners, and one four-engined Ilyushin Il-62M. For prop lovers there is a four-engined Ilyushin Il-18 and a trio of fifty year-old Antonov An-24 prop liners. Despite their age, these aircraft are in immaculate service, almost factory fresh.
Once airborne on a charter flight for enthusiasts it is possible to explore the length of the plane and take as many pictures as necessary. The Air Koryo and airport officials are surprisingly laid back. Because of the lack of air traffic even at the capital, it's possible to wander the length of the ramp without supervision. For tour customers who don't want to fly on every type, they will be escorted out right up to the runway's edge to photograph the takeoff and landing of their fellow travellers, a degree of proximity unimaginable in most other countries.
One thing that makes North Korea unique in the world today is a lack of internet and roaming for international phones. There are no smart phones buzzing in pockets or on the table. The quality of the conversation is better, and the quality of the friendships forged as a result also.
Are you able to interact with ordinary North Koreans?
For now, access to ordinary North Koreans hasn't really relaxed that much — you are always in sight of a local guide. However the cordon has expanded somewhat, with additions to the programme such as a city walk. It is worth bearing in mind that virtually nobody speaks English. The local guides are mostly lovely. It is entirely possible to discuss politics with them. As long as it comes from a place of respect and understanding, they can handle an opposing viewpoint.
That said, of course unscripted encounters are totally possible, and always fulfilling. Koreans are very sentimental, emotional, musical people, on both sides of the DMZ. They love a drink, love to sing, love to dance, and love a good cry — sometimes all at once. North of the DMZ you can add curious, naive, kind, and shy. Their surprise at coming face to face with a foreigner adds an extra charm factor.
What are the most represented nationalities on your tours?
The biggest group are Brits, possibly because Juche Travel Services is a British based company, but also because the British simply love aviation more than anyone else. Germans would be second on the list. The Swiss are numerically few in the world but are inveterate travellers so they often form one of the biggest groups. The rest is a smattering — usually a few Australians, usually a few Americans, and we've had other groups and individuals from all over.