The history of Air Koryo can be divided into three periods:
– the start-up of the joint Soviet-Korean Air Transport Society (SOKAO),
– the period of Chosŏnminhang under the control of the Civil Aviation Administration of Korea (CAAK),
– and the current period following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe (Air Koryo).
The first airline of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was a joint Korean-Soviet venture to connect Pyongyang with Moscow. The airline Soviet-Korean Air Transport Society (SOKAO, Советско-Корейское авиатранспортное общество / 소련-조선항공) was founded in early 1950s and had the right to design and build airlines directly on the territory of the DPRK, to carry out regular air services between these countries in both directions, as well as between individual points in Korea. The Soviets handed over four Lisunov Li-2 aircraft and started regular flights began the same year. With the start of the Korean War in June, services were suspended. Also part of the deal were airfield and radio equipment, spare parts and tools. The Koreans provided buildings and structures, utilities, electrical and telephone and telegraph network at airfields.
On June 28, after the systematic bombing of Pyongyang by American aircraft began, the personnel were evacuated, the fleet was stored and two damaged aircraft were transferred to the Mirim airfield (also known as Pyongyang East Airfield). The two damaged aircraft were later destroyed during raids.
Operations were resumed after the Korean War on 10 December 1953 with a protocol signed between the governments of the USSR and DPRK, which made it possible to open regular flights on the Pyongyang-Mukden-Harbin-Qiqihar-Hailar-Chita line, and from January 15, 1954 continuing to Moscow.
Due to significant losses in 1954 associated with the military operations on the territory of DPRK, the Soviets transferred its shares to the DPRK free of charge. The name changed to the “Civil Aviation Deparment of the Ministry of Transport” (UKAMPS, Управление гражданской авиации Министерства путей сообщения / 조선교통성 민용항공국).
Shortly after the transfer of shares, the airline was renamed Chosŏnminhang (조선민항) and placed under the control of the Civil Aviation Administration of Korea (CAAK). Operations started on 21 September 1955 using Lisunov Li-2, Antonov An-2 and Ilyushin Il-12 aircraft supplied by the USSR, followed by Ilyushin Il-14 in 1957. New aircraft were ordered in the 1960s in the form of Ilyushin Il-18E (1965) and Antonov An-24B (1966). Antonov An-24RV was added in 1974 and a year later, jet operations commenced with the first Tupolev Tu-154B being delivered for services to Prague, East Berlin and Moscow. These aircraft lacked sufficient range for these flights and therefor the aircraft had to refuel at Irkutsk and Novosibirsk. Several Ilyushin Il-18D and Il-18Vs were added to the fleet in 1980, followed by an additional Tupolev Tu-154B-2. Several Tupolev Tu-134B-3s for domestic services complementary to the Antonov An-24. The first Ilyushin Il-62 was delivered in 1982(?), allowing Chosŏnminhang to offer a direct non-stop service to Moscow for the first time. Sofia and Belgrade were other Il-62 services. Two of these aircraft are used in VIP configuration.
With the Cold War coming to an end and the following collapse of communism in Eastern Europe saw a vast reduction in the number of international services offered.
Chosŏnminhang was re-branded as Air Koryo in March 1992. Two more Ilyushin Il-76 freighter aircraft were delivered to carry cargo to and from its destinations in China and Russia.
Air Koryo was added to the list of air carriers banned in the European Union in March 2006. According to the European Commission, they found evidence of serious safety deficiencies during ramp inspections in France and Germany. The European Commission pointed to blatant systemic safety deficiencies at Air Koryo operations and the French Civil Aviation Authority pointed to a lack of transparency or communication of Air Koryo. The plan by Air Koryo for corrective action, presented in response to France’s request, was found to be inadequate and insufficient. The European Commission also held that DPRK authorities did not adequately oversee the flag carrier, which it was obliged to do under the Chicago Convention, therefor assessed that Air Koryo did not meet the relevant safety standards. In March 2010 however, Air Koryo was allowed to resume operations into the European Union with their Tupolev Tu-204 aircraft. According to the European Commission, these aircraft are fitted with the necessary equipment to comply with mandatory international standards. It is however unknown how these necessary equipment changes the accusations of lack of transparency or communication and the lack of relevant safety standards of Air Koryo, which points at the ban being a purely political move of the European Commission.
Air Koryo inaugurated services to Kuwait City, being operated weekly by a Tupolev Tu-204 aircraft. The services operate during peak travel season from April to October. In April 2011, Air Koryo also launched its first services to Malaysia with the inauguration of flights to Kuala Lumpur. The flights operated twice a week utilizing the Tupolev Tu-204, but were cancelled in mid-2017 due to sanctions imposed resulting from the poisoning murder of Kim Jong-nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport by suspected North Korean agents.
In 2012, Juche Travel Services, a company operating tours to the DPRK, launched “aviation enthusiast” tours using chartered Air Koryo aircraft, which offered visitors the chance to fly on every variety of Air Koryo aircraft within DPRK.