Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Flying The Communist Skies: Air Koryo To North Korea

Beijing, China

A flight attendant announced that beverage service would commence thanks to “our Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.”

Air Koryo flight JS152 from Beijing, China, to Pyongyang, North Korea, had been in the air about 20 minutes and had flown about 150 miles. But the entire Air Koryo experience, including the return four days later on Flight JS221, was like flying 30 years back in time. (For plane spotters and North Korea obsessives, I flew tail number P-885 to Pyongyang and P-881 back.)

The plane to Pyongyang was an Ilyushin 62-M, built by the Soviet Union in 1979 and kitted like a set from The Spy Who Loved Me. No cool corporate off-white here. The surprisingly comfortable economy seats were covered in puke green cloth upholstery with an indistinct pink pattern. The cabin’s interior shell was cast in a shade of beige which belonged in a Southern California ranch house from the era of earth tones. The plastic window shades were not opaque but a dark translucent brown.

The tray table was larger than on a contemporary plane, but the netting in the seat-back pouch was strung so tight that a bottle of water could not fit. The flight to Pyongyang had no overhead bins, only racks on which carry-on luggage was placed; the return flight had small bins molded from bile yellow plastic. I wondered where the Soviet designers found their color charts.

* * * * *

The weirdness started at the gate in Beijing’s airport, where I noticed the North Koreans, who are easy to distinguish from other Koreans. North Koreans are the ones wearing red lacquer pins of their late leader General Kim Il-sung (who is still President despite his death in 1994) on their left lapels, over their hearts.

All North Koreans are required to wear a Kim Il-sung pin when outside their homes. There are two principal designs, a large pin with Kim Il-sung’s face on a flag-shaped red background and a second design with the Great Leader’s face set in a small red circle. My North Korean guides later informed me that pins are distributed once a year at work and that there is no significance to the various designs; they are distributed as available.

About one-third of the waiting crowd were North Koreans. Another third were Korean-Americans, South Koreans and Chinese, and the final third were Caucasians. The plane was perhaps two-third full on the inbound journey, and packed on the return.

Three North Korean security officers, in blue uniforms, were standing on the tarmac supervising the loading of luggage onto the plane. I had never before seen that level of official attention given to the loading of luggage.

A plainclothes security officer, in the black pants and black shirt that is the de facto national dress of North Korea, stood at the end of the jetway, immediately outside the aircraft’s door. He scrutinized each passenger as we embarked, but he may also have stood the post to prevent cabin crew from defecting.

The Ilyushin had a strange three-compartment configuration. A small Business Class (in a country without private enterprise) was followed by an Economy section of perhaps ten rows. Next was the galley -- which completely divided the aircraft -- followed by the bulk of the Economy seats. The general seating order seemed to be: North Koreans in front, then Chinese and then other Koreans, with the white Americans at the back of the bus.

Most of the flight attendants looked like cast members from a Korean remake of Blade Runner. The one flight attendant in Business Class was wearing a bright red hanbok, a traditional Korean cloak. The other flight attendants, all women, were dressed in bright red jackets with padded shoulders and a red-and-white candy cane cravat. Each wore white gloves with an embroidered rose on the back of the hand, and each had her hair pulled tightly with a brooch and a small snood over a bun. As is often the case in Asian societies, these women had powdered their faces to look as white as possible, which accentuated their red lipstick and heavy black mascara and eyeliner. Of course, each wore a Kim Il-sung pin over her heart.

Patriotic music was playing as we found our seats. After we settled in, the flight attendants offered a choice of in-flight propaganda. I chose the English-language edition of The Pyongyang Times. The off-lead story – headlined “Books and writings extol Korean leader” – began with the sentence: “The world people in the five continents are highly praising President Kim Il-sung with immense reverence for him.” Great, I quipped to myself, the mathematical computations needed to keep this plane aloft are being made by people who do not know the correct number of continents.

I was placing my life in the hands of a 28-year-old machine built by a country that no longer existed and operated by a country that could not generate enough electricity to power its capital. I had to laugh.

* * * * *

Sitting near the back of an Ilyushin, you feel the thrust. All four engines are bolted to the tail, and you literally feel the airplane being pushed down the runway. The high-pitched whine of the engines is reassuring. Many modern airplanes are so baffled and muffled that you wonder how they reach take-off speed. With an Ilyushin, you know there’s enough power to launch that bird into the sky.

Lunch was served in a hinged plastic tray, with a black bottom and a transparent top. The menu was standard Asian airline grub: smoked meat wedges, cucumber salad with spicy cold chicken, a dinner roll, and rice with gravy and vegetables. The meal was nothing memorable, but it was being served gratis on a 90-minute flight, while American carriers charge for food on flights of up to six hours.

There were a lot of Nos. No video screens. No headsets. No frequent flyer program. No web site. No in-flight magazine (unless you counted copies of Pictorial KOREA; articles included “Ever-victorious Korean People’s Army” and “Japanese Reactionaries Run Amuck To Oppress Chongryon”).

But there were a lot of Yeses. Yes, the cabin looked clean and well-maintained. Yes, the plane departed and landed on time. Yes, the flight attendants were obviously selected for their beauty, common on Asian carriers.

When we crossed the Yalu River, a flight attendant announced that we had entered North Korean airspace. "Sixty-two years ago, our President, Kim Il-sung, came across the river with great ambition for his country and to liberate his country from Japanese imperialism," she said. Of course, by the time of the Yalu River crossing in September 1945, Japan had already surrendered, but I doubt that detail would have made a difference to the pale flight attendant.

* * * * *

I previously noted that Air Koryo received one star from the Skytrax rating service, a score which denotes “very poor standards of product across all travel categories.” After flying these two segments, I think the rating is unfair and beside the point.

Air Koryo should not be judged by the same criteria as Malaysia Airlines or LAN Chile. Air Koryo is its own animal, as unique as a moon lander or a vehicle you would take to the center of the earth.

Air Koryo is a flying circus featuring strangely coifed, vampiric flight attendants who work in a cabin straight out of a 1970s’ airport movie while travelers read palpably insane propaganda as they jet to an isolated dictatorship which is officially governed by a dead man. It’s not a drama; it’s a comedy of the absurd. Embrace the situation, and Air Koryo becomes enjoyable.

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Blogger Robert said...

What a wonderful article. Your vivid descriptions put me right into the aisle seat. I'm headed to Kuala Lumpur in July and plan to read all of your articles to give me a sense of what I'm in for. Hope you keep posting!

2:11 AM  
Anonymous Giant Robot said...

Your posts about North Korean are incredible. What a trip! As a sometime traveler who enjoys seeing the non-tourist side of the planet, I'll have to put NK on the list. I mean, talk about unique experiences!

8:58 AM  
Blogger Robert said...

"people who do not know the correct number of continents."

5:18 AM  
Blogger Andre said...

Brilliant post! I can't wait to read more from the rest of the blog!

5:02 PM  
Blogger Defastenist said...

absolutely excellent levels of detail in the descriptions of the air koryo meals.....i enjoied reading this

12:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Googled "Air Koryo" and stumbled across this article. Excellent writing. Seems to me that anything to do with traveling in DPRK should be done with a sense of humour. I hope to travel there and experience the surreality of it all one day soon.

5:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i agree with all the above comments :) it was like reading a small part of a great book :)

5:17 PM  
Anonymous D said...

Great post. I myself am opting to fly with Air Koryo (the alternative is going by train which my travel agency suggests for the sake of the adventure). Then again, after being on tour in China for two weeks prior to the DPRK-journey, I think that the last thing I need is a 25 hour train ride when I can enjoy this strangely compelling airline for two hours (and a silly 50 Euro more).

8:47 PM  
Anonymous rachel said...

This article is great. I was directed here from a article, and I can't wait to read your other articles. I'm living in South Korea and took a day trip into the DPRK about a year ago. I've ben obsessed with the place ever since.

if you don't mind, i'm going to link you in my wildly unpopular and unread blog.

11:19 AM  

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