Exotic Wings NO8: DPRK, Wonsan Air Festival

Exotic Wings NO8: DPRK, Wonsan Air Festival

Charles Cerrone ventures to North Korea to the utterly incredible Wonsan Air Festival and can’t believe his eyes. 

I’ve always wanted to visit North Korea. I’m not sure what drew me to it, but I knew I had to go. I’d read all the news, watched all the documentaries, heard all the stories - but I knew I wouldn’t understand it all until I saw it with my own eyes. I was determined to go, but it still felt like a distant pipe-dream. How does make it behind the veil of one of the world’s most reclusive nations?

Then came along the Wonsan Air Festival. Slowly but surely, I’d found my opportunity - working with my friends at the Centre for Aviation Photography in London.  After a weird year of paperwork, sketchy bank wires, visa applications and stress, it still seemed completely surreal. The idea that we, a group of westerners, and I, an American commercial photographer, would be allowed to set foot in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to photograph their Air Force? Yeah right. Even after the final details were settled, it still didn’t seem real.

Fast forward to September 2016, I’m being rushed off of a 1950’s Tupolev at the Kalma International Airport to play around on the tarmac.  Philadelphia to Newark to London to Helsinki to Beijing to Pyongyang to Wonsan - we haven’t even gone through customs yet and my first experience on North Korean soil is freely running around an active airstrip to photograph an aging Antonov 76 coming in for a landing. The ground shakes to the roar of the engines, and so do I. 

As we got deeper into our three and a half day stay in the Hermit Kingdom, I found myself becoming surprisingly at ease. I was surrounded by friends and colleagues, and local North Koreans who genuinely wanted to understand us as much as we wanted to understand them. While I cannot describe the thrill of a active duty MiG-21 flying low over my head at intercept speed, I found myself even more intrigued by the little things I saw, the surreal environment I was surrounded by, and the people I met. 

Each day of the trip was regimented, but full of surprises. We formed a bit of a routine - breakfast at our lodge, a quick trip to pay respects to the large-than-life monuments to the Eternal President and Supreme Leaders, an exhausting day under the Korean Sun chasing airplanes that are in museums in most countries, a cultural event in the evening, and beers and Kimchi with the locals in the evening.  

From our hotel to the buildings on the street, the pastel colors resembled Disneyland more than the concrete barracks we half expected. The glow of the neon lights at night felt warm and inviting. The locals we met had a lightning shine of curiosity in their eyes when we passed - they had never seen a westerner before, they had never seen someone with white skin. From potemkin villages to fake vegetables I’d heard the stories, but while in this foreign land I only experienced humans trying to show us the best their country had to offer, as if yearning for a world stage. 

At the end of the day on the last night, our minders were as tired as we were. We’d all had less than 5 hours of sleep for several nights now, and there was some strange camaraderie in our shared exhaustion. Shared nods of understanding, playing games on their Chinese smartphones during downtime, laughter when plans didn’t go as perfectly as planned. These were people I wished I could stay in touch with, and see again. 

As I write this today, news has gone out that in 30 days the US will place a moratorium on all American Passports for travel to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. I’m not sure what that means for me to return, but I would do it in a heartbeat.