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 door (which sucked when the pilots chain-smoked the whole way), no oxygen masks or floatation devices. But the seat covers were hand-embroidered, the flight attendant was stunningly beautiful, and there was a current copy of the Pyongyang Times, fresh off the presses to inform me that flooding was rampant in South Korea and that Kim Jong-il was sending aid. There was bad flooding that summer, though of course it was in the North. As an American, I was told that I'd be flying first class, which meant I'd sit right by the smoking pilots, but the meal wasn't bad at all:
The plane was a trusty steed, lifting off with power and cruising steadily at a midrange altitude. The pilots flew due east for Pyongyang, but when we reached the coast of the Yellow Sea, instead of flying over open water, the pilots took the safe route, veering north and following the coast all the way round to the DPRK. From this I inferred that they lacked navigational equipment and were basically working by a compass. They flew inland until they saw the train tracks that ran south from Shenyang, China, to Pyongyang, and these we followed all the way to the runway. No approach lights or signal beacon here. The runway was surrounded by electric fences, and instead of growing as we descended, the runway seemed to get smaller and smaller, barely wider than the plane's wingspan, it seemed. We taxied along many concrete approaches, past the hulks of planes that had previously crashed and had their fuselages rolled into the grass. Koryo Airlines, because of its safety record (one star out of five rating, the only member of that club), had been banned from most major airports in the world. I'd read that the FAA speculated that their awful crash history was due not to an aging fleet (which they had) or a poor maintenance record (also true) but because the co-pilots, in critical situations, hadn't pointed out mistakes or problems to the pilot, fearing reprisals for breaking rank. Still, when we taxied up to Sunan Airport's sole terminal, I was greeted by a giant mosaic of Kim Il-sung's face and a sense that the real ride was about to begin.
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Adam Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford University. His previous work includes a short-story collection, Emporium, and the novel Parasites Like Us. The Orphan Master's Son is his second novel.
Books mentioned in this post
Adam Johnson is the author of The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel of North Korea