A South Korean Airliner Just Made an Historic Flight to North Korea (And Came Back)


South Korea and North Korea — two countries still technically at war — are set to compete together under the same flag at this year’s Olympics. As part of the coordination for this historical partnership, all kinds of norms are being broken. The latest of these: flights between the Koreas have resumed for the first time since 1994.

A trip was just completed by an Asiana Airbus A321-200 (registration HL8060) carrying South Korean skiers to North Korea. The aircraft returned with the same skiers, plus 32 North Koreans. This delegation includes 10 North Korean athletes who’ve been invited to participate in the 2018 Olympics — six skiers, two figure skaters and two short-track speed skaters.

According to Aviation24, this is the “first time that an aircraft registered in South Korea has visited North Korea along the East Sea route.”

Yangyang, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 01: South Korean airline, ASIANA flight with the North Korean athletes attending the PyeongChang 2018 lands at Yangyang airport on February 1, 2018 located 50km from the border between South Korea and North Korea, between Military Demarcation Line and 38 degrees northern latitude, 40km from PyeongChang Olympic Athletes
Asiana A321-200 arrives in Yangyang, South Korea after a flight from North Korea

As far as we can tell from the limited FlightRadar24 data (due to the absence of ADS-B receivers in North Korea), other chartered flights have flown:

  • Seoul, South Korea (ICN) to Yangyang, South Korea (YNY)
  • Yangyang, South Korea (YNY) to Wonsan, North Korea (WOS)
  • Wonsan, North Korea (WOS) to Seoul, South Korea (ICN)
  • Seoul, South Korea (ICN) to Wonsan, North Korea (WOS)
  • Wonsan, North Korea (WOS) to Yangyang, South Korea (YNY)
  • Yangyang, South Korea (YNY) to Seoul, South Korea (ICN)

Between the lack of ADS-B coverage in North Korea and the limited coverage in the mountainous Yangyang area, some of these flights show up as mere blips on the radar:

Direct flights between these airports would normally cover just 716 miles. However, these flights took the (very) long route over the Sea of Japan — avoiding the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the heavy fortification on both sides.

Before the chartered flights could depart, Asiana needed to get approval from the United States to avoid sanctions. According to press following this trip, US officials gave a last-minute approval. A South Korean foreign ministry official told the Yonhap news agency that consent was granted on Wednesday, January 31:

The government has made smooth progress with the US Department of the Treasury on the process of granting exceptions to US sanctions to prevent Korean companies from being affected by US sanctions. The government is in close consultation with the United States on matters related to Pyongyang’s participation in the Olympics, with the view that the PyeongChang Olympic Games will be held successfully in accordance with the framework of sanctions against North Korea.

And yes, the historic flights had boarding passes — which hopefully the athletes kept:

View image on Twitter

No word on whether the flights will credit to Asiana’s “Asiana Club” mileage program. If so, hopefully the athletes and the Olympic delegation will be able to appeal for actual flight mileage rather than the direct flight miles.

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