See Inside North Korea’s Retro Soviet Planes

This isolated nation is frozen in the golden age of Soviet aviation.

Inside North Korea: Live From the Games, an hourlong documentary special featuring live commentary from host & correspondent Bob Woodruff, premieres Sunday, Feb. 11, at 9pm ET (6pm PT) on National Geographic.

North Korea is one of the most isolated countries in the world—international travel is highly regulated and freedom of movement within its own borders scarce. The lack of demand for air travel combined with global sanctions has had an unintended effect: The country is frozen in the golden age of Soviet aviation.

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A pilot removes the engine covers of a Tupolev-154.

“North Korea is an unusual country that is fascinating to many people, and I think people are curious to see what an airline might look like in such a strange context,” says photographer Arthur Mebius, who took 24 flights with Air Koryo over the course of three separate trips. His photo book, Dear Sky, the Planes and People of North Korea’s Airline, is a tribute to the dedicated airline crews and his own love of aviation.

SOKAO (Soviet–North Korean Airline)—the airline now known as Air Koryo—was originally established in 1945 to connect Pyongyang and Moscow. In 1993, it was rebranded into its current iteration, inspired by the Koryo dynasty that ruled the peninsula from 918-1392 A.D.

Its classic 1960s fleet—made up of Ilyushins, Tupolevs, and Antonovs–is still active.

“Due to international sanctions and environmental restrictions, this fleet of older Russian Jetliners of Air Koryo rarely fly abroad,” Mebius explains. “Nevertheless, these aircraft and their crews are kept ready for operation.”

These restrictions along with its one-star rating from Skytrax have reduced the airliner’s international stops to just two—Vladivostok, Russia, and China. But Air Koryo’s abysmal rating has little do with its safety record and more to do with its lack of other standard amenities, like a frequent-flier program and official website.

“People are led to expect poor service and old planes,” Mebius says. “In fact, on a regular flight from Beijing, the aircraft is a new-build Tupolev or Antonov, indistinguishable from a contemporary Airbus or Boeing.”

During the 90-minute flight, passengers receive a complimentary meal and beverage service, including North Korean beer, by a polite cabin crew. “There are some eccentric touches, such as showing stage performances of North Korean musical bands, complete with a backdrop of military maneuvers … the crossing of the Yalu River into North Korean airspace is announced over the PA.”

Several companies offer aviation tours in North Korea and it remains a popular draw for international visitors. While the fleet itself is impressive, Mebius was even more captivated by the people who keep it operating.

“It was the dedication and pride of the crew that caught my interest for the series,” he says. “It was enormously exciting.”

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The Ilyushin 76 transport plane sits on the tarmac at Kalma airport.