by Adam Johnson, January 13, 2012 11:45 AM
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.
by Adam Johnson, January 12, 2012 12:14 PM
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 Koryo, Ryugyong, and Yanggakdo hotels suggest that the flow of international travelers demand such modern structures. The truth is that, even during the Mass Games, when tourism was at its peak, there were only enough visitors to employ the 6th and 32nd floors of the hotel. At night, the entire building was pitch black, except for the thin bands of light on these two floors. Because our minders left us untended on an island we couldn't leave, there was no supervision in the hotel. I decided on the first night to visit the revolving restaurant. I pushed the "up" button on the elevator, and when the doors opened, I moved on instinct to step inside. Yet, a flash of hesitation kept me from doing so. In that split second, I realized there was no elevator, just a dark shaft. The doors closed on their own, and when I called the elevator again, it appeared. It's hard not to notice the lack of button for the 5th floor, which rumor had it was the floor from which all the room surveillance took place.
The revolving restaurant didn't turn. A small bar was surrounded by AstroTurf. Shots of unknown liquor were about $20, though if you wanted Jack Daniels, it was $42. Two bored-looking German businessmen stared out the window. Other than that, the only inhabitants were the fish gulping in the murky water of a half-abandoned aquarium. If I could go back, I'd roll up my sleeves and clean that tank. Then I saw the fire escape. I opened the door, and a dark stairwell led down the empty 46th floor. There, the doors to unused rooms stood open, and it was clear that employees had been stripping parts and fixtures from these suites to keep the ones on our floors looking new. By moonlight, I moved through the abandoned rooms, looking at doors that had been removed and stacked in the hall, toilet seats that had been cannibalized, carpets pulled up in great sheets and rolled down the hall. It seemed like a metaphor for the whole nation: great resources allocated to project false prosperity, a cosmopolitan veneer cloaking enforced isolation, and a secret process of cannibalizing itself from within. I resolved to walk all the floors between 46 and 32, but after only a couple more floors, I was just too creeped out, and I called for the elevator to take me down. When it arrived, it was with great caution that I took my next
by Adam Johnson, January 10, 2012 11:30 AM
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 to make a communist Godzilla movie that was possibly penned by the Dear Leader himself. The result was Pulgasari
But as I read the testimonials of people who'd survived to defect, the appeal of the Dear Leader's eccentricities waned. Reading Kang Chol-hwan's Aquariums of Pyongyang brought home the depths of deprivation that hundreds of thousands experience daily in the DPRK. For a truly terrifying narrative, look for Shin Dong-hyuk's story in Escape from Camp 14, forthcoming from Viking. There are no end of such painful and moving tales online. I began looking at satellite images of kwan li so camps, which are North Korean prison mines. I read deeply of the floods and the famines of the late '90s. I read of deportations, torture sessions, forced abortions, and I stared endlessly at Google Earth images of mass graves. Imbued with a growing sense of mission, the humorous anecdotes of the Kim regime fell away. I often teach my students that, since those with important stories to tell are often least able to do so, writers have a duty to tell the stories of others. I began to feel that duty, and since it's impossible for North Koreans to tell their own stories (for now, at least), and since most of the nonfiction books focused on large political, military, or social issues, I knew that fiction would be the only way to get to the lost humanity of the North Korean people.
Yet the more I researched, the more I came to understand that Kim Jong-il was the black hole that warped all the reality around him. All the mythology was of his creation. He wrote the dark script of an entire nation. Nothing happened without his influence. The more I understood that the stories of 24 million people were scripted by one man, the more I came to realize that, to understand North Korea, the reader would have to understand this one person. I'd have to depict him not as a clown or a despot but as a real human, with weaknesses and vulnerabilities. A Frontline documentary about Madeleine Albright's visit to Pyongyang in 2000 was a great early inspiration. She spoke of how, far from being crazy, Kim was crafty, cunning, and filled with pranksterish humor. She described how he planned a surprise gymnastic event for her to witness, how she was driven into the darkened May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, and how, when the lights flashed on, 100,000 gymnasts performed for her personal delight. That was the man I soon understood I'd have to capture if the novel was going to
by Adam Johnson, January 9, 2012 11:53 AM
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 on its best behavior ? the city is spotlessly cleaned, and the power is left on all night. Supposedly, the one monument that glows all night, regardless of the time of year, is the Tower of Juche Idea, which is found on the south shore of the Taedong River. The tower is 560 feet tall, and from it the most commanding view of Pyongyang can be had. From the top, with the glowing red flame overhead, every rusting apartment block can be seen until finally the woodsmoke obscures the horizon. Juche is a national notion of self-reliance that both suggests shrugging the yoke of imperialism and making do on your own when the Kim regime stops providing food rations.
When exiting the Tower of Juche Idea, you must, of course, leave through the gift shop, which turned out to be one of the few bookstores in Pyongyang. You must remember that all artists are required to write, paint, sing, or sculpt propaganda for the regime. There is no true artistic expression to be had, so that their novels, instead of exploring the human condition, simply praise the Kim Leadership. The result is that a true literary novel (at least that we know of) hasn't been written in North Korea since the end of WWII, and citizens of that nation haven't read a real book in three generations. But here in the gift shop of the Tower of Juche Idea, I discovered many propaganda novels written in English. The one that caught my eye was I Am a Korean by Ryoktosan, or "Rikidozan."
In Pyongyang, I'd came across several bottles of rice wine bottled in commemoration of the North Korean wrestler Ryok Do San Sul, known in Japan as Rikidozan. He was born in North Korea's Hamgyong Province. After the war, Ryokdosan moved to Tokyo, where he became a mentor to Japanese pro wrestlers Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba. In real life, Ryoktosan ran afoul of the Tokyo underworld after his wrestling career was over, and in a bar restroom was murdered by a Yakuza enforcer who urinated on the knife before stabbing him.
But in the propaganda memoir "I am a Korean," Ryoktosan is revered as a martyr who was murdered by the Japanese government in retaliation for beating Masahiko Kimura, inventor of the famed armlock that bears his name. I asked two people in Pyongyang, and both were emphatic about the way the Japanese government murdered Ryoktosan out of jealousy. Both seemed to take the North Korean version of Ryoktosan's fate as gospel, and, in the end, I found myself wishing the propaganda storyline were true,