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Author Archive: "Adam Johnson"

Dead Reckoning to Pyongyang

Traversing Beijing's PEK Airport in search of North Korea's Koryo Airlines was an international feat. Farther and farther into the remote reaches of the terminals we walked, marching until it seemed we'd run out of airport. Then we ran out of airport. At the gate where our Koryo flight was supposed to meet us was only empty tarmac. Dozens of us stood around, staring at distant aircraft warehouses. Most people wore their red Kim Il-sung pins, even in China. At last a bus came, loaded us up, and drove us for what seemed like miles, until, finally, at the corner of an ancillary runway, we found our mighty steed: standing alone at the edge of the cement was an Ilyushin Il-62. I knew what I was in for. Most of the planes that had replaced the old Ilyushins — Tupolevs and Antonovs — had themselves been decommissioned. When I told a pilot friend that I was probably going to fly on an Ilyushin Il-62 from 1963, he said he'd thought the last Ilyushin had crashed in Africa years ago.

Yes, the plane was old — no cockpit ...

Pyongyang’s Cannibal Island

The 47-story Yanggakdo Hotel is located on Yanggak Island, situated in the Taedong River that bisects Pyongyang. The hotel was built in 1995 by a French construction consortium, and supposedly the North Koreans defaulted on the payments. Though the hotel appears to be centrally located as to provide access to the heart of Pyongyang, it is actually as far from North Korea as possible. Here's a picture of the hotel I took from the top of the Tower of Juche Idea across the river:

The hotel gleams in the afternoon light, a monument to modernity with its revolving restaurant up top and subterranean karaoke club and casino. Actually, the truth is much different. A special permit is required to access the island, which keeps all citizens of the capital at a remove. Once there, no guest may leave unless escorted by an official minder. Further, the hotel is staffed with Chinese workers on contract so that no contact between a foreigner and a citizen is possible.

Pyongyang loves its show-hotels, which project a cosmopolitan feel to a drab, soviet-block style cityscape. The ...

The Dear Leader

Deciding to make Kim Jong-il a character in my novel was not easy. I'll admit that when I began toying with material related to the DPRK, the early sketches reflected my fascination with the endless absurdities related to the Dear Leader, as he's known there. Sure, he has bouffant hair and elevator shoes and Rosey-the-riveter jumpsuits. But you don't have to look too far to come across truly astonishing accounts of the Dear Leader's behavior, as in the testimony of Kenji Fujimoto, who was Kim Jong-il's sushi chef and is the source of many amazing details from the Kim Dynasty, including the Dear Leader's love of jet skis, his fascination with the TV show Iron Chef and the fact that the Kim kept a fluffy puppy around. Fujimoto also details Kim's Kippumjo, or "joy division," a brigade of 2,000 beautiful women recruited for the sole purpose of fulfilling the Dear Leader's pleasures. It seemed, though, that the deeper the absurdities, the deeper the darkness, as when the Dear Leader had South Korean movie director Shin Sang-ok and his actor wife Choi Eun-hee kidnapped and imprisoned until they agreed ...

The Tower of Juche Bookstore

Since Powell's is one of my favorite bookstores in the world, and since I'm a guest blogger, I thought I'd relay my experience at one of the worst bookstores in the world. In 2007, I traveled to North Korea to research my novel The Orphan Master's Son. I visited four cities over six days, and it's hard to describe the surrealism of the DPRK: there are no planes in the sky, no advertisements, no cars on the boulevards, no stores, no bicycles, no pets, no magazines, no... it goes on forever . There was one haircut that most of the men sported, a "speed-battle" haircut, the number four, and they wore the same blue shoes and black half-sleeve vinalon sport coats. The women all wore the same eerily dark shade of lipstick.

Pyongyang opens up for two weeks a year — once in the spring and once in the fall for the Arirang (or mass) games in the Rungrado May Day Stadium, which is situated on Rungra Island in the Taedong River that bisects Pyongyang. It's the largest stadium on earth. During these two weeks, North Korea is ...

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