China’s New Flight Agreement With North Korea Shows Relations Are Improving — Plus, What Experts Have to Say About North Korea’s Only National Airline

Relations between China and North Korea have been on the up and up for a short while now. Kim Jong Un met with China’s Communist leader, Xi Jinping, earlier this week to brief Xi on the summit with the United States. And China and North Korea have been growing their relationship more than ever in recent months. They’ve met in person three times since March. Now, China announced a new flight agreement with Kim’s country, proving things are looking good between the two (which could be bad for the U.S. — read on for more about that).

North Korean’s Air Koryo can now fly between Xian and Pyeongyang

Air Korea

Air Koryo airplane | Boarding1Now/iStock/Getty Images

Up until now, China has only allowed North Korea to fly to four cities: Beijing, Shenyang, Shanghai, and Chengdu. But it tested charter flights from Xian, a city in central China, to Pyeongyang, North Korea’s capital, eight years ago and received a strong response. Now, the city of Xian hopes that by allowing flights between the two cities, tourism in Xian will step up. (Xian is home to China’s terracotta army of life-sized sculptures, which is an international attraction.)

Plus, the report released about the new flight path said opening a route between Xian and Pyeongyang would “satisfy the enthusiasm” of Xian’s citizens who want to take holiday in North Korea.

Since June, flights between China and North Korea have increased. On June 6, flights between Beijing and Pyeongyang resumed after a suspension lasting more than six months. Now, with the Xian-Pyeongyang flight path in the works, it shows tensions from the past year are loosening between the two Asian countries.

North Korea’s only airline has just a one-star rating

Air Koryo, North Korea’s only airline, operates flights between North Korea, China, Russia, Malaysia, and Singapore, plus a few smaller countries. But its only regular destinations are China and Vladivostok, a city in Russia. And the airline is no luxury. For years, Air Koryo has been ranked the absolute worst airline by SkyTrax, an airline review service based out of the United Kingdom. All of Air Koryo’s planes are from the Soviet era — most are about 50 years old. The airline is constantly rated one-star for its terrible customer service. But some say the airline isn’t as bad as it seems.

No photos are allowed on the plane, and everyone has to read the Pyeonyang Times

When passengers board the plane, they’re given the Pyeongyang Times, which is essentially a North Korean propaganda newspaper featuring a lot of great things about Kim. Plus, passengers are prohibited from taking any photos or videos while on the aircraft or crumpling the newspaper if Kim’s face is on it. Besides the newspaper, the only in-flight entertainment options are either Korean music groups, cartoons, or North Korean propaganda videos. Most passengers rate the food between one and two stars, although that could be the case on any airline.

But despite all the negative reviews, some vouch that Air Koryo actually isn’t terrible. Simon Cockerell, an employee at a Beijing-based travel agency that specializes in North Korea, told NBC that Air Koryo only has a one-star review because SkyTrax focuses more on amenities than safety. “It’s a bit of a giggle, actually,” he said. “They are clearly not the world’s worst airline.”

Air Koryo hasn’t had a fatality since 1983 — and that was the only fatal accident in its history. And most reviewers say the flights are always on time and never overbooked. Patrick Smith, pilot and author of Ask The Pilot blog, said he had never heard anything bad safety-wise about the airline — just that it had terrible customer service. “Some of the world’s best and safest airlines are carriers the average American has never heard of,” he told NBC.

But is China getting too comfortable with North Korea?

China has always been North Korea’s closest ally, but the relations between the two countries haven’t always been smooth. However, with China and North Korea holding several meetings in the last few months and starting up new aviation routes, and tensions between the U.S. and China rising due to trade tariffs, the concern needs to be voiced: Could China defy the U.S. and choose not to continue enforcing strict sanctions on North Korea? If that happens, North Korea might no longer have a strong enough reason to continue its denuclearization plan. China is a key player in whether or not a successful relationship between the U.S. and North Korea is possible. And if tensions rise between the U.S. and China, the hope of peace with North Korea could fall.

Bill Richardson, the former US energy secretary, ambassador and repeat US envoy to North Korea, told CNN, “I think China is sending a message to Trump: You want to put trade tariffs on us and have our cooperation with North Korea? You can’t have both.”

Check out The Cheat Sheet on Facebook!