Air Koryo Flight 151, as microcosm and metaphor (updated)

We now have at least one first-person account of what happened aboard that Air Koryo flight that filled with smoke and made an emergency landing at Shenyang earlier this week. I said in my original post that “I’m sure the experience wasn’t pleasant,” with deliberate understatement. In fact, many of the passengers aboard the half-empty flight thought they were about to die, and at least one began to rethink the purpose of his life (something we should all do more often, if under better circumstances).

I say “at least” one, because one account comes from a passenger who spoke to Chad O’Carroll of NK News, “requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of talking to media on the issue.”

But there is also a strikingly similar account by a person many North Korea watchers know well …

(Update: At a reader’s request, I’ve removed all references to the person’s name and the NGO he’s affiliated with. I’ll certainly honor the request, although the fact that it had to be made says everything you need to know about North Korea’s willingness to embrace openness and change).

I disagree with (witness’s) policy views, of course. I see the engagement theory as a conclusive failure that actually dilutes international pressure that could force North Korea to disarm and reform, and thus sets back progress toward those shared goals. I’ve also met (witness), like him very much personally, believe in the goodness of his intentions, and am very glad to hear that he’s safe. In (witness’s) account, there is also an unmistakable acknowledgment of the unaltered realities of North Korea.

In typical North Korean fashion, a senior airline staff comes into the cabin and began to repeat “no problem…no problem” to reassure passengers, especially a Russian who looked ready to punch the staff. Having worked in the country long enough, I know “no problem” means “big problem”. The smoke continues to fill the cabin. No information was forthcoming until I heard a flight attendant walking past mention “Shenyang.” I grabbed her and asked her if the flight was being diverted and she said “there is no problem, we are landing in Shenyang.” I thought “that’s not Beijing. We have a problem.” [Witness Account, since unpublished]

I can’t help wondering if (witness) really intends to go back to Pyongyang after posting this under his own name.

The plane starts dropping and the pressure builds in my ear. The friend is crying now. I realized this could be the end. I could die in North Korea, in a North Korean plane crash. There is a brief moment of clarity as I wondered why I do all this shit for North Koreans at (NGO), and the shit I put up with for my work. I was scared stiff when I realized I would be leaving loved ones behind. The North Korean at the front is still smiling and repeating “no problem…no problem.” I thought about punching him. The plane is shaking violently in the rapid descent.

Read the entire thing. And don’t just read it as a terrifying story. Read it as a microcosm of North Korea itself, and as a metaphor for the course its government has chosen for its 23 million passengers.

One parting shot: as of the time of this post, two days after the incident, the Associated Press’s Pyongyang bureau had not filed a report about the incident from Pyongyang. Instead, it has a dry dispatch from Beijing, quoting a Xinhua report, and containing this delectable sentence: “Calls to the airline’s office rang unanswered while the relevant department at the airport could not immediately be reached.” Compare this with Reuters‘s detailed report from Seoul.

Yet again, AP reports nothing exclusive that is newsworthy and nothing newsworthy that is exclusive. Yet again, having a bureau in Pyongyang appears to do more to impede than advance AP’s ability to report the news from North Korea.

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