Empty airport seating area
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Gallery: Wonsan Kalma International Airport sits deserted

Our arrival at Wonsan’s International Airport delivered another of those surreal ‘only in North Korea’ experiences; a glitzy but surreally empty new airport, built for international flights that never come!

It opened five years ago but is yet to receive a single international flight. In fact it has so far had no domestic flights either, apart from charter flights bringing tourists (and very occasionally Koreans) to this less-visited part of the country. The day we landed here ours was the only arrival; and the only departure was the same plane taking off again to continue its journey to Pyongyang. Most of the passengers were staying on board; I think we were the only group to alight.

The international terminal opened in 2015. It has two jet-bridges and a newly designed apron that could accommodate twelve commercial aircraft at any one time. Needless to say that apron was deserted today.

The airport is sometimes used by military aircraft; but I assumed none were here today or we would not have been allowed, nay encouraged, to take these photos. Although having said that, our UK guide later told me that he did spot a few fighter jets from the plane as we landed, tucked away in hangers.

So why build the airport?

North Korea built an airport here to serve the new hotel complex being constructed at the behest of Kim Jong Un to create a new surge in tourism to the region; he sees it as a potential beach resort. But while it has good beaches, Wonsan currently lacks the other infrastructure required to build a tourist economy; and the restrictions currently placed on independent travel and exploration in the DPRK make it seem unlikely to me that they will attract the tourist numbers needed to justify the expense of building such a large airport and providing the many thousands of hotel beds planned.

The most likely market would be China; but even then some relaxation of the ‘go nowhere without a guide’ might be needed, maybe through the creation of an enclosed hotels and beach zone within which tourists can move freely? As this is a pet project of Kim Jong Un’s, who spent childhood summers on this coast, no doubt they will find a way to make it work. The 38 North website has some interesting ‘before and after’ photos of the hotel developments: https://www.38north.org/2019/01/wonsan011619/.

Looking around

We took our time looking around the airport, enjoying a coffee in a coffee shop clearly opened for our sole benefit and picking up some souvenirs and gifts in the well-stocked shop, also presumably opened just for the duration of our visit.

On the upper floors they hadn’t even bothered to open the various refreshment counters, further consolidating the impression that I was wandering through some sort of dystopian SF film in which everyone in the world has been killed apart from a single protagonist; an impression strengthened when for a while I found myself the only person from our group on that floor! Just for a moment I panicked slightly, thinking everyone might have left without me; but then I recollected that no North Korean guide would allow that to happen as the penalties of leaving a tourist unsupervised must be harsh.

Here is a selection of the photos I took there, shared for Cee’s Real vs Fake challenge. This airport is very much a blend of the two – real airport, fake ‘international’!

View of empty airport
Looking out on the aprons and runway
Shiny airport with handful of people
Empty arrivals hall (all the people you see are either staff or from our tour group)
Shiny airport desk
Only one flight (ours) arriving today
Shiny airport with woman staffing sales desk
Cigarettes for sale in the arrivals hall
Empty airport ticket desk
No point in selling tickets when there are no planes
Shiny airport with deserted seating area
Empty seats in departures
Shiny airport with deserted seats and tables
More empty seats
Shiny airport with deserted refreshment stalls
In the departures hall
Shiny airport with deserted refreshment stalls
A refreshment stand stands empty
Shiny airport with deserted refreshment stalls
Refreshment and souvenir stands without staff or customers
Shiny airport with flower display and shop entrance
The souvenir shop opened for our benefit
Entrance to modern airport building
The main entrance, taken as we were leaving – deserted at midday

I visited North Korea in 2019

20 Comments

  • starship VT

    It’s a beautiful airport, but the lack of incoming/outgoing flights, and no people make you feel as if the whole country has been evacuated and you’re the only one who didn’t get the message on time, LOL! The posts on your visit to North Korea keep getting more fascinating, Sarah!

  • Ayuri Yuasa

    Very interesting! It isn’t easy to see inside the country. When I visited South Korea about 12years ago, all the tour to visit N.Korea were cancelled due to the bilateral situation. I only saw N. Korea from the observatory on the south side, and bought some bottles of N. Korean beer.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Ayuri, for taking the time to post this comment 🙂 Yes. the border with S Korea is very firmly closed. It must have been interesting to look across from the observatory – we did the same looking across into the South 🙂

  • Fergy.

    Another interesting piece, Sarah.

    Although I only drove past it and did not “visit” as such, this place reminds me of Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport near Hambabtota in Sri Lanka, another vanity project, in this case built by the Rajapaksa clan as the name suggests.

    Like it’s North Korean counterpart it has no flights at all now and is owned by India purely to counter the Chinese ownership of the nearby Habantota Port, yet another vanity project.

    I would really love to know who they think they are fooling by opening the coffeeshop / cigarette counter etc. just for you. Did they really imagine you would just think it was a quiet day?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      That’s an interesting comparison Fergy – I remember reading about the Rajapaksa clan in your blog recently 🙂

      They didn’t think they were fooling us in opening the coffee shop and souvenir shop. That’s all part of their genuine effort to make sure tourists have the best possible experience wherever they go. If there was a chance we’d want refreshments (and we did) then of course we should be able to get them. Plus of course we spent some money (and foreign currency at that, US dollars or Euros) which would have been welcome to them 😀

    • Sarah Wilkie

      It was only really eerie when I found myself alone on the top floor! I guess they see it as investing in the future but really it’s a vanity project for Kim Jong Un. I’m sure there could be better ways of spending that money, to improve the lives of the ordinary people there 🙁

  • Rose Vettleson

    This is a very nice looking ‘international’ airport. A good offering for ‘fake’ v. ‘real’.
    I’ve been under the impression that countries like North Korea were difficult for average folks to visit. I think this was influenced by listening to Lisa Ling. Lisa was a speaker at a Women’s Expo I went to in Fargo, ND around 2009 (? I think). She talked of her sister’s capture. My thoughts were, ‘if important journalists weren’t protected, how could average people safely travel there?’ Do you think your background with the travel industry makes it more attainable for you? Or can an average person visit there? Would it require a lot of preparation?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi Rose 🙂 I have no background in the travel industry, only a love of travel! It’s actually easier for ordinary people to travel there than journalists – the latter are banned and when we signed up for our trip we had to say that we weren’t journalists or professional photographers in order to get our visas. Because you have to travel in an organised tour with guides, the preparation is actually minimal! You just book a tour, make sure you have your visa (we organised that ourselves but the tour company, Regent Holidays in our case, would have done it) and turn up on the appointed day. The tours usually start and finish in Beijing so you have to get yourselves there. We went a couple of days early to get over any jet lag and also make sure that delayed flights didn’t cost us our places on the tour – you can’t fly in a day late on your own as you might do any other destination 😉

      Of course, no one knows what travel will look like post-pandemic, so all the above relates to 2019 when we went 😀 And it’s quite possible you would have problems visiting as an American – I think the N Korean regime currently permits US citizens to visit (that wasn’t always the case) but I believe your own government doesn’t allow it. The UK government has no such ban, although our Foreign Office advises against it – even though it’s perfectly safe as long as you follow the rules!

      If you’re interested I’ve written quite a few other posts about that trip, including an introductory one about why we went: https://www.toonsarah-travels.blog/why-go-to-north-korea/ Or you can search for others under Destinations/Asia/DPRK in my drop-down menu above 😀

      • Rose Vettleson

        Oh apologies, I made the mistake of thinking your past references to the Virtual Tourism and TravellersPoint sites meant that perhaps you were involved with the travel industry. I need to pay better attention to things and improve my memory skills. 😊 And thanks, I‘ll look at some of your recommended posts on traveling there.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Absolutely NO NEED to apologise Rose 😍 Unless you’ve read all my posts in order (and who would?!) it’s quite understandable that you wouldn’t know what I was referring to! TravellersPoint is another blogging platform that I’ve used in the past (and still do to journal travels). Virtual Tourist was a huge part of my life for many years. It was an online community of keen travellers who posted reviews of hotels/sights/restaurants/ etc., chatted about travel in various forums and organised real-life meetings all over the world. The website was bought out by Trip Advisor and closed down by them in 2017 but the core VT community has stayed in touch, mainly via Facebook, and we still organise meetings large and small, when COVID doesn’t interfere 🙂

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