Of all the members of Bill Clinton’s cabinet, Madeline Albright was Johnny’s favorite; she was always polite to the staff, often visiting the cockpit to thank him after flights. Nevertheless, planning her upcoming trip was becoming quite a headache, but that wasn’t too surprising—Albright’s trip would be the first time a United States politician had visited North Korea.
Normally, to schedule a flight, Johnny would simply contact the country’s embassy, but North Korea didn’t have an embassy in the United States. Instead, an American ambassador from the South Korean embassy had to travel across the Demilitarized Zone to the Swiss embassy in North Korea where he worked with Johnny to schedule the trip. Unfortunately, there was no way to call, so they had to communicate over the internet, and the internet in North Korea only worked for about four hours a day—often during the middle of the night in America.
Late at night, bleary-eyed, Johnny and the ambassador messaged back and forth working out details—what type of fuel the North Koreans would have, what kind of security they’d need, what runway to use. This last one was almost a big problem. The ambassador had to personally drive out to inspect the runway they’d chosen, only to discover that it was full of holes and unusable. They had to locate another one in better shape. Finally, the day of the flight arrived. Just hours before takeoff when everything was scheduled, a member of Albright’s staff asked what time the sun would rise in North Korea. They looked it up and found that it would rise about three hours after they landed.
“That’s not going to work,” said the staff member. “We’ve got to take off later.” He explained that they needed to land at sunrise in order to get the best pictures.
“We cannot take off later,” Johnny responded. Their flight took them through Russian airspace, and they had a strict timeframe where the Russians were allowing them to cross. If they crossed outside that window, they would literally risk being shot down, as happened to a plane carrying a U.S. Congressman that accidentally drifted into Russian airspace in 1983.
“Is there nothing you can do?” the staff member asked.
“Dude, it’s Sunday evening in Russia. You know the embassy isn’t going to be able to get anyone that counts.”
Nevertheless, they wanted the pictures. In the end, Johnny flew over Russia at the scheduled time then slowed the plane down as much as he could the moment they left Russian airspace. This added a few extra hours to the flight, and they landed just in time for the perfect photo op.
While Madeline Albright met with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il, the North Koreans offered to take the Air Force Two staff on a tour of the capital city, but they were so exhausted from the 19-hour flight they asked if they could go tomorrow instead. They were taken to North Korea’s “best” hotel where Johnny collapsed into a twin bed that was too short for him. Wanting to relax, he flipped on the TV. All three channels were showing the American baseball world series with Korean-speaking commentators. As Johnny drifted to sleep, he wondered what they were saying.
Johnny slept for over 18 hours before waking for their handlers’ grand tour of the capital city. As they walked among stark and ugly utilitarian buildings, the group watched bicyclists wearing coats and ties swarm the streets in place of cars. The handlers led them to the Grand People’s Study House, North Korea’s national library. Inside, citizens typed away at computers. Johnny thought back to his trouble scheduling the flight, how the internet only worked for a few hours a day in North Korea. He wondered if the computers were even working or if this was all meticulously staged, like Albright’s sunrise photo shoot. The people in the library were well dressed and never looked up from their computers, like actors intently studying their lines.
Next on their agenda was a subway with a whole three stops followed by a mosaic mural depicting socialist symbols. Finally, the day concluded with an acrobatic circus in a local stadium. They entered through a long corridor featuring a 20-foot statue of some North Korean official. But when they finally entered the stadium, Johnny’s blood froze. Around them, five thousand North Koreans sat in complete silence, staring at their feet, motionless as statues.
“There’s not a sound being made…” Johnny later recalled. “Nobody’s sneezing, coughing, sniffing.” It felt uncanny; he’d never seen this many people all dead quiet.
Elsewhere, Madeline Albright was facing a similar sight. She stood alongside Kim Jong-Il in the largest stadium in the world, and among the hundred thousand silent faces, every last pair of eyes was fixed solely on the Supreme Leader.
What Johnny experienced was similar, although on a smaller scale. The moment he and the other Americans took their seats, the lights dimmed and the curtains drew back. Suddenly, the crowd sprang to life, clapping and cheering for the duration of the show, just like an American audience. When the acrobatic circus was over, the crowd stood up to applaud then sat down and returned to complete silence.
Years later, that image still haunts Johnny. What had the North Korean government done to their citizens to keep such a large crowd so perfectly, horribly disciplined? Shaking his head, Johnny remarked, “That’s control.”