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It has long ranked as the world’s worst airline — and yes, its final destination is often within a totalitarian state — but to photographer Arthur Mebius, North Korea’s Air Koryo offers a bewitching, one-of-a-kind experience. The state-owned airline largely runs on a fleet of Soviet-era planes that rarely fly abroad due to international sanctions and environmental restrictions — and when they do, they can only land in cities in China and Russia’s Vladivostok. Impressively, Mebius has flown on eight different vintage aircrafts and taken over 20 flights, spread across three different trips to the isolated country.
He’s documented these trips and compiled dozens of the images in Dear Sky: The planes and people of North Korea’s airline, a photo book published earlier this year by The Eriskay Connection. Interspersed with brief, fictional anecdotes that together tell a prideful history of North Korea’s national airline, the photographs subtly speak to the country’s notorious, enforced culture of rigidity and nationalism in a way that avoids fetishizing the dated aesthetics of the so-called “hermit kingdom.” Mebius captures aircrafts that are constantly monitored and maintained, with retro but neat interiors; pilots and flight attendants, in neatly pressed uniforms, are portrayed so they seem much more than just hired crew, but instead like keen, alert guardians of these flying machines.
Despite their travel limitations, “these aircraft and their crews are kept ready for operation,” Mebius told Hyperallergic. “Occasional domestic flights are all the more important for the flight attendants and pilots to practice and keep up their knowledge and skills. It was the dedication and pride of the crew that caught my interest for the series.”
An aviation enthusiast, Mebius first traveled to North Korea in 2015 as part of a tour for other aviation buffs organized by Juche Travel Services. He enjoyed the experience so much he made plans to return twice. “There are some eccentric touches [to the flights],” he recalled, “such as showing variety stage performances of North Korean musical bands, complete with backdrop of military maneuvers, with the soundtrack playing through the aircraft PA.” The crossing of the Yalu River into North Korean airspace, too, is announced to the cabin.
Most of these flights were nearly empty, and the lack of passengers is evident in the series. The absence of tourists hints at the DPRK’s isolation (President Trump’s latest travel ban, by the way, will barely affect the country), but rather than seeking to fulfill any broad expectations we may have of the mysterious country, Mebius was more interested in telling a more intimate story of a particular community bent on serving its country.
Flying, as he said, is “a special event. The preparations to make it happen reflect the importance, which relates to most of the activities in Communist North Korea … I was simply struck by the love for flying. My intention was to picture the dedication of the crews I saw there and tell the story of the people and their planes.”
Dear Sky: The planes and people of North Korea’s airline is available online.