Pyongyang International Airport’s new internet room is missing something vital

At first glance, Pyongyang’s new airport building has all the features international business travellers have come to expect, but some lose their lustre upon closer examination. A case in point is that the terminal building’s internet room appears to be missing the internet.

On two recent trips through the airport by staff of a media company, the room’s three terminals were either occupied by North Korean airport employees, making it impossible for others to use them, or were completely empty, with their keyboards removed. Attempts to open any browser with a mouse resulted in a failure to connect. The travellers say that while it may have been a temporary glitch, airport officials have refused to comment.

But a check of the browser history on two of the terminals showed one was empty or had been cleared, and the other had a record only of a visit to Naenara, North Korea’s official website.

The airport’s terminal opened on July 1 and was inspected by supreme leader Kim Jong-un in a visit publicised by state media. Images were shared around the world, showing glossy duty-free shops and restaurants offering a range of food and drink, including an espresso bar and a chocolate fondue station. The terminal is not the only airport planned in the country. Wonsan, on the east coast, is reportedly converting its military airport for civilian use. This is believed to be another sign of the regime’s desire to attract foreign visitors. The new terminal at Pyongyang mainly caters to carriers from Russia and China.

At first glance, internet at the airport would seem like quite a concession for a country that is almost completely sealed off from online communications.

Hardly any North Koreans have personal computers and most of those with online access can see only the country’s domestic version of the internet – an intranet featuring only government-sanctioned websites.

q&a modern look but old controls

Eric Talmadge finds out how likely it is for business travellers to log on at Pyongyang’s new airport terminal:

So who can use the internet in North Korea?

The internet can be seen only by a small number of elite officials, IT experts or others with a clear need to use it – and always under supervision.

If this is the case, why bother with an internet room in the airport?

The terminal’s internet room, which opened a few months ago, is part of efforts to give visitors the sense that North Korea is just like any other modern travel destination.

So what else is on offer to make that the case?

Arriving passengers see coffee and well-stocked souvenir shops, a DVD stand, information desk and a slickly produced billboard showing a crew of the nation’s flag-carrier, Air Koryo, looking sharp in their blue and red uniforms. There are also the two chocolate fountains, one for white chocolate and the other for dark.

Anything else?

Well another nod to international norms can be seen right behind the internet room, in the smoking room. In something almost never seen in the North, where just about every adult male who can afford it, including leader Kim Jong Un, is a smoker, the room has a big sign warning that the habit is hazardous to one’s health.

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