North Korea is looking to acquire new Russian airliners to replace ageing Soviet-era types in service with the people's republic's only airline, Air Koryo, with which it hopes to operate services to fellow Axis of Evil rogue states.
Russian sources say North Korea is seeking Ilyushin Il-96 long-range widebodies and Tupolev Tu-204 narowbodies, types which have recently been sold to Cuba, Iran Syria and Zimbabwe. Unable to buy from the West, these countries have signed contracts and letters of intent for over 30 Russian aircraft.
|Air Koryo flies two Ilyushin Il-18s on domestic and charter routes: It hopes modern airliners will boost numbers|
Russia's principal lessor Ilyushin-Finance (IFC) says it is interested in supplying Il-96s and Tu-204s to North Korea on standard 15-year financial lease terms modelled on the Il-96-300VIP deal agreed with Cuban flag carrier Cubana. IFC says initial contacts have taken place, but declines to comment on the status of talks with Air Koryo.
The Russian government provides guarantees to state-run banks lending funds to IFC and Russian manufacturing plants for the production of Il-96s and Tu-204s for overseas customers.
Air Koryo (formerly Chosonminhang) hopes that the lease-purchase of modern Russian jets will boost its passenger numbers and enable direct flights to Iran, another "rogue state" grouped with North Korea into the "Axis of Evil" by US president George Bush. Other Axis states (now diplomatically relabelled "outposts of tyranny") considered for trade links by North Korea's government include Belarus, Burma (Myanmar), Cuba, Syria and Zimbabwe.
Acquisition of environmentally-friendly aircraft could allow services to Japan, which has a considerable Korean community.
Air Koryo's fleet has shrunk considerably since North Korea's economy fell into decline in the early 1990s, when China and Russia stopped subsidising the country. The flag carrier has around a dozen Soviet-era airliners and helicopters. The aircraft are freshly painted and fully functional.
Pyongyang International airport is the only North Korean airport supporting overseas scheduled passenger flights. It is home to three four-engined Ilyushin Il-76 freighters, two Il-62 long-range passenger jets, two Il-18 turboprops and four Mil Mi-8 helicopters. A handful of Tupolev Tu-134 and Tu-154 medium-range jets also operate from the airport on scheduled and regular charter services to Beijing and Vladivostok.
|Two Il-62s fly to China (pictured below at Beijing Capital airport) and Russia|
Air Koryo's Il-62s are used for on-demand charter flights to Russia (Moscow and Vladivostok) and China (Beijing, Shenyang and Macau), arranged by state tour operator Ryohaengsa Korea International Travel and its foreign partners.
Il-18 and Antonov An-24 turboprops fly domestic on-demand charter services carrying foreign tourists, state officials and the military to remote regions of the country, often to mountain airports in the north. The An-24s and Mi-8s provide an air link to Chongjin, from where tourists make their way to Mount Paekdu.
|A handful of Tupolev Tu-134s (pictured above) operate regular charter services to Beijing and Vladivostok|
Air China, China Northern and Aeroflot have suspended services to Pyongyang, leaving Vladivostok Avia the only non-Korean airline flying to North Korea, operating a weekly service with a Tu-154M.
|Pyongyang airport could be home to Ilyushin Il-96s and Tupolev Tu-204s if contract talks with lessor bear fruit|