Opinion – Flying enigma

In late August, the aviation authorities announced that Air Koryo would start operating flights between Macau and Pyongyang. The North Korean company ran that route for a few years, in the late ’90s and early years of this century. It is authorized, for a limited period, to operate two flights a week. According to the news, those started discreetly last week.

The resumption of this service is more than just a curiosity. The relationship of the country with Macau has always been of interest to observers of international politics. Occasionally, some controversy brings it to the front-page news.

Macau aside, the company operates a total of 22 flights per week, to only three destinations: Beijing, Shenyang, and Vladivostok. The flight to Macau is the longest one in the operations of the company. But information is scarce. The connection does not show on the company’s webpage. On Macau airport’s webpage, Pyongyang still fails to show in some destination menus.

If one tries to identify the rationale for this reintroduced service, it is not easy to come up with a clear and plausible answer. Goods supplies, which the company also operates, do not require a scheduled passenger flight; and cargo operations usually value discretion.

A better candidate might be tourism. But tourism to the country is tightly controlled — only a handful of organizations are allowed to handle foreign visitors. Stringent restrictions in both the number of people allowed and the accessible destinations apply for tourists willing to visit the country. Most of the existing channels go through mainland China. That is unlikely to change.

Further, no local travel agency seems to be offering packages for North Korea. In the earlier life of this air connection that was not the case. A local agency proposed a couple of packages per year. Based on existing information, tourism motivation is not discernible behind the move.

Gambling might be another connection. There are two casinos in the country. However, their operation is possibly even more secretive than almost any other aspect of the internal operations of the country. It is not immediately obvious what those casinos might offer that the local operators could not provide.

The Macau-Pyongyang link has always involved some mystery, one that seems rekindled with the re-opening of this flight route. The riddle is still unsolved. We look forward to the next big conspiracy theory. Anyone?