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/.
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’!
I visited North Korea in 2019