At first, the Twitter account of a flight attendant at Air Koryo, North Korea’s national airline, looks like a cute parody cooked up by someone from one of the small but active online communities in the country or perhaps aviation geeks. “Her” handle is @misskimpyongya1 and she loves her leader Kim Jong-un, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, life in Pyongyang, her job, dancing, karaoke, shoes and pizza. Perfectly innocent – and seemingly totally implausible considering she claims to be tweeting from the capital of one of the cruellest and most isolated dictatorships in the world.
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Unlike other accounts lampooning the pudgy Kim Jon-un, however, @misskimpyongya1 doesn’t engage in sarcastic tweets or satire. The account which first tweeted last October 20 has featured so far hundreds of images of Air Koryo planes, including exterior and interior views: cockpits, business-class seats, meal service and even the toilets. Also making an appearance are streets, squares, offices and buildings in Pyonyang, and a number of fetching, young uniformed Korean women. Whoever is operating this account either has unusual access to North Korea’s national airliner or has gone to considerable trouble to collect hundreds of photos of its aircraft from every possible angle.
If it were any other airline, this could well have been a marketing gimmick. But that doesn’t make sense when its Air Koryo. The company doesn’t exactly suffer from competition on its handful of routes. Mainly, it serves senior officials on domestic flights and a very small number of tourists and businesspeople on its flights from China and Russia. Air Koryo is routinely ranked the worst international airline in the world and is the only one to receive a single star on airline reviews website Skytrax. It operates antiquated Soviet aircraft, some over 40 years old, and its relatively modern Tupolev 204s which have inflight entertainment show only propaganda films (plus, there are no earphones so you can’t change channels or lower the volume).
So is this Twitter story just another vehicle for North Korean propaganda? It could be. The photographs from Pyongyang all show happy people; there is no sign of the hundreds of thousands of labor camp inmates, the millions starving in villages and provincial towns, the executions carried out of people charged for anything from placing an international phone call to nodding off during one of Kim’s speeches. But misskimpyonga1 doesn’t come over as your ordinary propagandist: She doesn’t spout slogans and responds politely in good English to anyone tweeting at her.
Could she be the real deal? A live, breathing stewardess?
The huge majority of North Koreans are cut off from international communication networks and especially the Internet. However, a handful of senior government officials and businesspeople with ties to the leadership, and their family members, live in a small bubble of privilege in Pyongyang and are able to connect with the outside world. Is misskimpyongya1 giving us a glimpse into the bubble, outside the heart of the horror constructed by the Kim dynasty? It’s a tempting thought. But this is much more likely a means for temptation of a different order – one of the fake accounts operated by organized crime groups for “phishing” gullible users, mainly men, and obtaining their credit card and bank account numbers as a prelude to fleecing them. Undoubtedly, this is much more sophisticated than the average Twitter sting; usually persons involved in such efforts make do with a few messages in broken English offering a certain kind of friendship and a standard gallery of erotic pictures.
But two elements at least strengthen the latter assumption. An online search of the images misskimpyongya1 has posted on Twitter shows that at least some of them have appeared online in the past. Some of the pictures were part of a project carried out last year by Romanian photographer Mihael Noroc who visited North Korea last year to document the country’s women. Moreover, misskimpyongya1, or whoever is operating the account, seems to be happy to communicate by direct message but refuses to give any interviews or disclose personal details (besides a snap of an attractive flight attendance at the entrance to an airliner; very quickly the conversation takes on a more suggestive tone with a promise for a private chat later on.
So this is probably an above-average phishing attempt, but it’s hard to let go of the shred of a possibility that somewhere in Pyongyang there’s a young woman who really loves shoes and dancing, craves attention and thinks this writer is “handsome.”