Flying Air Koryo: Stuff I Didn’t Expect
1. The Air Hostesses are REALLY nice
The first thing you notice, when you step inside the squeaky-clean cabin of Air Koryo, is that its hostesses are nice. They are not the jaded trolley-dollies of the Free World, with their pat phrases and fake smiles. They are genuinely friendly. They are also very curious. During the three hour flight to Pyongyang, one of them sat next to me, buckled her seat belt, and asked me who I was, where I was from, and what I was writing.
She was very persistent. I was paranoid she was a spy, and kept my answers short. When she asked me again if I was a journalist, I folded the paper I was writing on into my shoe, and gazed firmly out the window. Our Associate Producer Nick Bonner assured me later that these girls are not spies, but idealistic young women who take their role as the first contact westerners have with North Korea very seriously. They are also peachy keen to practice their English.
It was the first time I realized how innocent many North Koreans are, when dealing with westerners. I guess they can’t afford to be so guileless when it comes to surviving in a country not known for a relaxed view on dissent.
But I’m digressing. I was not flying into North Korea to tell the story of the repressive regime and its brainwashed citizens that we get fed daily on the mainstream newsfeeds. I wanted to tell a different story – about who the North Koreans are, how they live, and what stories they love: all through the prism of cinema.
North Korea’s film industry is one of the most nationalistic in the world. In its heyday, it produced 30-40 feature films a year, screening them cheap to twenty three million punters across the country. The Regime’s message – that General Kim Jong Il and his Father General Kim Il Sung were the greatest leaders on earth, North Korea is the greatest nation on earth, and North Koreans live in a socialist paradise that is the envy of oppressed workers all over the capitalist world, is propped up by a wealth of cinematic dreams.
Group song in North Korean melodrama, ‘A Broad Bellflower’
I wanted to uncover the filmmakers who made these dreams, shaping the thoughts, desires and feelings of an entire nation.
The first time I flew on that Air Koryo plane, I sat there wondering if I’d actually meet North Korea’s top directors, actresses, writers and DOPs, and noticed the second thing about flying Air Koryo, which is not as pleasant as the first:
Air Koryo safety brochure
2. The Safety Standards are retro.
The cabin rattles. It looks like it is held together with fresh paint and blue tac. The Air Koryo fleet is made up of aging Russian Illyushas– complete with retro emergency equipment, and a safety brochure that does not inspire you with confidence.
The safety video shows a pretty hostess doing the usual things with an oxygen mask – but her safety vest belongs to another era, and there don’t seem to be any torches or inflatable slides. The video ends with an animated crane, soaring through rosy pink clouds, in a glorious blood-of-the-workers sunset.
An accented Korean voice kicks in over a revolutionary anthem sung by a mass choir, and what sounds like an army of drums:
Welcome to the clean-aired splendor of the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea. The first thing a foreign traveller will notice about Pyongyang, a city proudly resurrected by the heroic Korean People after it was obliterated by the American Warmongers, is its fresh air….
Or something like that. Given I am being watched and cannot write it all down, you’ll just have to trust me.
3.The other passengers look like they live in a parallel universe.
Thing number three about flying Air Koryo that makes you realize you are on no ordinary plane: the passengers look like a cross between the cast of Madmen and a Soviet-era documentary.
The women wear lacy twin-sets or knee-length pastel cocktail dresses, with bright pink lipstick and neatly permed up-dos. The men sport starched business shirts and dark suits, or Mao-collared khaki uniforms. And every single passenger has a shiny little button, with the Dear Leader’s smiling face on it, pinned to their left lapel.
4. The on-board meal is not what you’d expect.
On all four Air Koryo flights I’ve ridden, they give you a hamburger. It comes in a yellow and white paper wrapper, on a small plastic tray. It is icy cold. And it tastes like no burger I’ve ever eaten. It is both salty and sweet, and rather heavy. Closer inspection under the thick yellow bun reveals a patty packed with different types of unrecognizable ground meat, a tangy, tomato-coloured sauce, and what seems to be a pickle. The whole thing is lip smackingly delicious.
They even provide a little bag, for those parts of the hamburger you don’t want to eat – or have eaten, but want to regurgitate later:
Air Koryo’s ‘For your Refuses’ bag
5. Entertainment options are minimal.
Onboard literature: The Pyongyang Times
Thing number five about flying Air Koryo is the range of reading matter. There isn’t any. North Korea is the only country in the world to have sealed off its citizens, totally, from outside news, TV, and the Internet.
So here I sit, on a plane full of people who have never heard of the Kardashians, Big Brother, Instagram, IKEA, McDonalds, or the fact that Prince William and waity-Katie tied the knot, and open the only newspaper available. The Pyongyang Times makes Rupert Murdoch’s publications look like balanced news. It is a total propaganda fest, celebrating the supremacy of North Korea over the rest of the world.
The Dear Leader’s name (whether it is Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, or his son Kim Jong Un), is always in a slightly larger font. The articles celebrate North Korean dominance: from the botanical festival of Third World countries, where ‘Kimjongilia’, the flower named after Kim Jong Il, has just won first prize; to the bumper cotton crop harvested by the humble Farmers of Wonsan, which are to be made into parkas personally designed by Kim Jong Il, for grateful workers everywhere. Meanwhile, in the Pacific, Kim Jong Un has responded to the military exercises being conducted by the Imperialist US Bastards and their South Korean Lackeys, by “successfully detonating” a new rocket, in the sea off Japan.
Standard copy in the Pyongyang Times
Pictures of the smiling Leaders sit on every page, under bold and inspiring headlines. My favorite is “Inscriptions on rocks mirror Koreans’ faith and will”, about the Junsan farmers who have just carved the words ‘Peerless Patriot General Kim Jong Il’ in twenty foot high letters, onto the rocky face of Mount Sokta: to celebrate Kim Jong Il’s 70th birthday.
The world I have departed believes that Kim Jong Il was born seventy years ago, in a hut in Siberia, where his exiled Father Kim Il Sung was waging a bloody guerilla war to seize Korea back from the occupying Japanese. But the people sitting around me are taught from kindergarten that Kim Jong Il was born on the slopes of the sacred Mount Paektu, his arrival marked by the miraculous appearance of a new star and double rainbow in the sky.
I twist around and sneak a look at the cabin. The article about the Junsan farmers is furled open on laps, its readers digesting the breathless assertion that “the people had carved letters on the rocks in reflection of their boundless respect for the undying revolutionary exploits of Kim Jong Il, who devoted his whole life to the sacred cause for the prosperity of the country and the well-being of the People generation after generation.”
I think even Rupert Murdoch might balk at the excesses of The Pyongyang Times.
6. They are really happy you’ve come.
The last thing I’ll never forget about flying Air Koryo was what I saw out the window, when we coasted over the misty hills of Pyongyang and started to descend to the airstrip. Below us, in a lush rice paddy, was a group of farm workers, waving at our plane. They were all women, and looked like they’d stepped straight out of one of the rural North Korean rom-coms I’d seen: rosy cheeked and smiling, with floral head-scarves and thick cotton skirts bunched up around their waists.
As we drew closer, I could see they were carrying straw baskets, from which they hurled bright pink flowers at our plane. They were singing and dancing, waving frantically at our windows as they ran. They seemed filled with joyous ecstasy, simply because we were about to touch down.
Sill from North Korean rom-com, ‘Urban Girl Gets Married’
Curiously, or not curiously at all, depending how you look at it, when I flew back to Beijing one week later, the same women were in the rice paddy.
But this time, they kept their heads down in the muddy rows, and did not acknowledge us at all.