When booking a flight to Pyongyang, your options are rather limited. Unless you can catch one of the few Air China flights that fly to Pyongyang, you will be flying on Air Koryo, the North Korean state owned airline. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however, as long as you ignore the fact that Air Koryo is banned from operating in the EU due to “serious safety deficiencies”.
Check-in at the Beijing airport. Comrades, what is this division of classes? Business class on a North Korean state owned airline? Nevertheless, I was in economy class with the proles.
Our flight (JS222) that day was on a trusty Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-154. This particular aircraft had been involved in a few mishaps, but no fatalities!
An Air Koryo flight is unlike any I have been on. Revolutionary music is played over the loudspeakers before takeoff, and instead of the considerably long safety spiel about oxygen masks and water landings that we are used to in Europe and the U.S., the flight attendant (or hostess, as the call buttons still refer to them as) gives a short political speech praising the Great Leader and expressing the DPRK’s desire for a unified Korea. Rather than handing out copies of the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, you are given a copy of the English language Pyongyang Times, which includes such thrilling articles as “Kim Jong Il provides field guidance to different sectors”, “World praises Kim Il Sung”, and the editorial “US military presence unjustifiable”. During our pre-tour briefing at the tour company’s offices, we were given explicit instructions on how to treat anything with an image of Kim Jong Il, such as your copy of the Pyongyang Times. You are not to defile it in anyway, as this is a very serious offense. “Defiling” would include throwing it in the trash can, wrapping your fish and chips in it, or even creasing the photo of the Dear Leader. If you do so, and are caught, at the very least you might be forced to stand in front of the group and engage in self-criticism, a standard feature at communist party meetings. As such, we were all very careful when folding our copy of the Pyongyang Times.
Although the flight from Beijing to Pyongyang is only an hour and a half, the good folks at Air Koryo serve you a full meal and free beer, unlike those capitalist pig American carriers who have ceased to provide the proletariat with even a mere snack of pretzels. The meal we were served was not particularly edible, however, and was probably the worst airline food I have ever eaten. It consisted of fish that was kinda fried, yet cold, and sitting in some sort of greyish sauce, rice, canned fruit, kimchi, and spongecake. I managed to eat the rice and spongecake, but just couldn’t choke down more than one bite of the fish.
Welcome to Pyongyang
The flight itself was rather smooth, and we arrived at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport on time. As we disembarked the plane, several officers in olive drab uniforms directed us onto a bus that would take us to the terminal. Once there, another officer wearing a surgical mask collected our health declaration forms and waved us towards the immigration officers. After some initial confusion, we managed to be admitted into the country, collect our luggage, and then hand it over to the customs officers to be X-rayed for weapons, explosives, “killing devices”, drugs, “exciters” (?!), poison, “publishings of all kinds”, GPS devices, and cellphones. Those of us with cellphones had them confiscated, and all of our passports were collected for whatever reason, and would not be returned to us until we left the country.
After we had finished this whole process, we were divided into our different tour groups and directed to our buses. The American tour group, which I was obviously a part of (there are different restrictions for American tourists, so all of us imperialists are placed in the same group) consisted of 16 Yankees, one Koryo Tour guide, and two (later to be three) North Korean tour guides who would be accompanying us at all times. And with that, we were finally off to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.