This is part two in a short series of blog posts about a visit I made to North Korea last summer. Part one is here.
Before getting into this post proper, I’ll address something in the news. A few days ago, when I posted my first story about North Korea, I addressed the spate of ridiculous news articles and photoblogs that we’re seeing online from people who have done tours like mine. They go into North Korea, take some photos, and then misrepresent them to the outside world, furthering the ignorance that surrounds the country.
Today, the news broke that Otto Warmbier, an American student who was arrested in North Korea, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. This is an awful punishment, and I feel for the guy and his family. He’s only 21 years old, and while it’s easy to say, “What an idiot!” I can’t help but feel that a 21 year old version of me would’ve been much smarter.
People often say you shouldn’t travel to North Korea. Indeed, this sort of thing is a risk. Yet, as sad as it is to see something like this happen, the guy committed a stupid crime in North Korea and was punished in a fairly predictable way. If you choose to go there, please act respectfully, accept that you’re in North Korea, and you will be fine. Don’t be an idiot, and don’t give them reason to arrest you. It’s not that hard.
I assume that North Korea took the action they did in order to secure some sort of trade with the West, who otherwise keep them cut off in the hopes of starving the country into a regime change. However it works out, I hope Mr Warmbier is returned home unscathed and hopefully a little less foolish.
Now, back to summer 2015.
On July 21st, I’d returned to Pyongyang after running a half-marathon at Mount Paekdu and was surprised to have a new addition to the itinerary. North Korea and South Korea were playing each other in a football (soccer) game at the world’s largest seated stadium – right in the middle of Pyongyang!
I love football so this was an exciting opportunity for me, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing live games. To watch a game in North Korea was beyond my expectations… especially when it was between North and South Korea – probably one of the most intense rivalries on earth, albeit not usually in a sporting sense.
On the bus from the airport to the stadium our guide informed us of some rather surprising news – the two countries were now at war. That’s right, North and South Korea had begun shelling each other and the news was reporting it as an actual outbreak of war! Later, back at the hotel we’d get to see news reports on the TVs in our rooms.
I lived in South Korea for three years so I was quite accustomed to skirmishes between the two countries. I simply looked the guide in the eyes, and then looked out the window at the streets and determined that this incident was no worse than any other. The US and South Korea weren’t about to bomb Pyongyang any time soon. This was business as usual.
When we got to the Rungrado (릉라도) stadium I found that the game was actually between a North Korean side, Daedonggang (대동강), and a South Korean side, Gyeonggido (경기도). Still, I didn’t know the two countries would ever allow their teams to compete like this.
The stadium itself was incredible to behold. Its 150,000 capacity, however, was not exactly tested, as perhaps less than a quarter of the stadium was filled. It was impeccably clean (like all of Pyongyang) and the people watching the game were very well-dressed. The stewardesses, as you will have seen above, were dressed beautifully in hanbok.
As shells fell over the DMZ and the world media speculated that the Korean War was back on (even in South Korea people were now worried), I sat in a stadium in North Korea, watching representatives from either country shake hands and play a good-natured game of football. There was no booing, no heckling, no hacking, no cheating… It was just good honest sport.
In the end, the North Korean side won 3-0, for which we were all thankful. Everyone was happy and peaceful leaving the stadium. I didn’t sense any ill-will but I didn’t want to find out what it looked like when a South Korean side won a game in Pyongyang.
After the game we went out for samgyeopsal and soju. North Korean soju is vile compared to its South Korean counterpart, and would give me one hell of a headache the next morning, as we prepared to head back to China.