My Week Covering Football in the Communist Kingdom of North Korea
Updated: Mar 5, 2021
It was a crisp, cold night. The sentry on duty tapped the muzzle of his rifle against the window of the car, inviting the man sat silent in the back to identify himself. The car’s engine labored. The driver and his front seat passenger stared ahead, at the thick, black gates blocking their path.
Slowly, the man in the back turned his body toward the now open window. Oblivious to the chill wind, he eased open one side of his jacket to display his ID, affording the guard an icy stare as he did so.
Instantly, the sentry stood upright, stepped away from the car and moved to unlock the gates. The wheels of the dark sedan turned slowly, edging toward the steel barrier which required considerable effort from the flustered guard.
This was no ordinary exchange at a checkpoint, for this was no ordinary checkpoint.
This was Pyongyang in March, 2005. The car that had just entered the diplomatic quarters in North Korea’s capital contained three members of the nation’s feared secret service.
There was another passenger in the vehicle that night … watching, saying nothing but soaking in all that was around him. That passenger was me.
The man whose jacket contents had so startled the young soldier had informed me that he worked for the North Korean Olympic Committee. When told this, I just nodded and smiled, for I knew better, having been warned that my every move would be monitored by mysterious men.
It was Friday, March 25 and I had a dinner date with the first-ever British ambassador to North Korea, David Slinn. We would not dine alone that night, for my ‘Olympic committee’ minders made sure that they were on the guest list (two of them enjoyed Ambassador Slinn’s hospitality, the other stayed with the car).
Also joining us were the surviving members of the North Korean World Cup squad, the mystical figures which had taken the 1966 tournament by storm when it was staged in England.
North Korea were making their World Cup debut, and nobody gave them a chance. As it turned out, they became the darlings of the day, only upstaged by a victory for the hosts.
Along the way to writing themselves into World Cup folklore, the North Korean team caused one of the sport’s most famous upsets, as they knocked the fancied Italians out of the competition with a 1-0 win in the group stage.
Thirty-nine years on, and here I was sat across a dining table from the goalscorer against Italy, Pak Doo-Ik (below).
We talked soccer.
To his left was Lee Chang-Myung, the goalkeeper in 1966 for the secretive Asian state. He stopped eating as conversation turned to the direction that the sport had gone, with players across Europe earning tens of thousands of dollars a week.
Talking money and wealth in North Korea was not conversation often heard at a dinner table, as Ambassador Slinn later told me.
When growing up, my father regaled me with tales of the ’66 World Cup. He told me how he spotted Eusebio walking outside of Old Trafford after a game.
Eusebio was well known to Pak Doo-Ik and his teammates, as it was the late, great Portuguese who had led the fightback against North Korea in their quarter-final meeting at Goodison Park. The Asian minnows had raced into a 3-0 lead after 25 minutes, before four goals from Eusebio helped the European team triumph 5-3.
My dad also enjoyed talking of ‘this team from North Korea’, which nobody knew of. He, of course, was familiar with the name Pak Doo-Ik.
Now, as eager as I was to venture back to England’s and North Korea’s finest hour, my mind was elsewhere that night.
You see, I’d been in the country since arriving via Beijing the previous Saturday, readying myself to cover North Korea versus Bahrain in a World Cup qualifier. I was collected from the airport by my three minders and taken to the Yanggakdo Hotel, chosen – no doubt – for it being situated on Yanggak Island. One road in, one road out, on the banks of the Taedong River … making it easier for me to be monitored.
For the first three nights, I appeared to be the only foreign guest housed inside the soulless hotel of a thousand rooms, and comfortably outnumbered by stern-looking, suited men who seemed to emerge from the shadows within seconds of me stepping from the elevator and wandering into the lobby.
As well as being in North Korea to cover an international fixture, I was also seeking to produce a radio documentary on the history of soccer in the country. And yet, try as I might, my time was taken up by anything but soccer-related activities.
My first full day was spent at the Korean Art Gallery, wandering the drafty halls in the presence of the curator and – of course – my minders (the two which went everywhere with me). It was here I was to learn that my time and space would not be my own when, at the end of the tour, I asked to use the restroom.
Stood at the urinal during one of many power outages, mindful of my aim, I was startled by the sudden glow of light, produced by a cigarette lighter and delicately positioned about an inch away from my right ear.
“For you to see, Mr. Richard,” claimed the junior of my two minders.
In truth, due to me having denied my bladder nature’s escape for longer than is healthy, I was clearly taking longer in the restroom than my minders had anticipated, and my absence – I imagine – was making them anxious. To allow a foreign journalist to give you the slip was not good for career prospects!
Day two involved a trip down to the banks of the Taedong River, and a tour around the USS Pueblo, a small US Navy ship which was captured in 1968.
Day three took in a wander along the streets of ‘South Korea’, the ‘USA’ and ‘Europe’ with a guided tour around the Pyongyang Film Studios.
To be fair, the supposed foreign settings appeared about 50 years out of date, but I smiled and sauntered my way around on yet another ‘distraction’, while frustration built inside.
I had requested the opportunity to speak with various people within North Korean soccer, and had been politely fobbed off at every turn.
It was at about this time that my senior minder began talking money, and my hotel bill. I wasn’t due to check out until the Saturday morning, and it was Monday night. I was slightly baffled but, like with all things, my clear, concise queries were met with half answers or simply a shrug of the shoulders.
And so I retired to my small, gray room – which I’d been warned would be bugged – still without so much as a whisper from anybody connected with soccer in North Korea, but with tentative talk of money in a land where credit cards, ATMs and price lists were nonexistent.
I had no knowledge of the cost of my hotel (not available via traditional routes), and so had spoken with BBC colleagues who had previously made the trip and then doubled my budget. It still wouldn’t be enough.
Tuesday brought a little light relief, with the arrival of the international press corps ahead of the soccer match. It didn’t bring me any closer to the sounds and stories of soccer in North Korea. Instead, we were whisked off to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, a sickeningly ornate mausoleum housing – at the time – the founder of this most bizarre of nations, Kim Il-sung (he’s since been ‘joined’ by his son, Kim Jong-il). We were afforded the ‘honor’ of seeing Kim Il-sung lying, embalmed, inside a glass coffin.
A press trip around the city of Pyongyang followed on the Wednesday, during which we – at least – got to visit the national stadium and watch the two teams train ahead of their Thursday encounter, and got to hear from Pak Doo-ik and Lee Chang-Myung at a press conference.
The money mumblings had continued, but it wasn’t until we were due to leave for the stadium on the Thursday that my minder showed his hand. My bill was ready to settle, and was approximately three times what I expected.
I was advised that the additional cost was for my match credential, when in truth I was paying the week’s wages of my three minders.
So, picture this. I left for a World Cup qualifier between North Korea and Bahrain, in a car surrounded by secret service (I was never allowed to walk anywhere outside the hotel), having left a hotel room which was almost certainly bugged, and now knowing that I couldn’t pay my bill. I was short by about $1800, and scheduled to depart in the next 36 hours.
What followed was one of the most surreal few days of my life. First, I needed to phone my wife, fully aware that we were not alone in our conversation, to explain the sticky situation and then to allay any fears that I’d not be coming home.
Then the call was made to my boss at the BBC. Both phone conversations contained long sighs and silences. This was new territory for all of us. For all my bravado and assurances to loved ones, I knew deep down that I was in a bit of a pickle.
Step forward Ambassador Slinn, whose residence I was due to attend on the Friday night, and 12 hours before my hoped departure back to civilization. He assured me everything would be okay but, until that hotel bill was settled, my fate hung in the balance.
The question constantly buzzing about my head was: “What would happen if I couldn’t pay my bill?”
Endless scenarios played out. None of them pleasant. Breaking rocks in some labor camp didn’t appeal to me. Neither did being paraded in front of the tightly-controlled North Korean media.
Would they? Over a few thousand dollars?
The truth of the matter is, despite my best efforts to push dark thoughts to the back of my mind, I really had no idea what the next 24 hours held in store.
And so, when I arrived at my dinner date with the team from 1966, the first question I had was for David Slinn. As we stood in his hallway, removing our coats, I politely whispered:
“Are we going to be okay?”
Before he could answer, his assistant appeared, informing me that there was a phone call for me. A phone call for me? Who knew I was there? Ushered into an empty office, I picked up the receiver.
A slight delay followed, before a familiar accent replied: “Hello Richard. This is the Foreign Office in London. We are safe to talk. This is a secure line.”
Had I just dropped onto the set of the latest James Bond movie?
The voice from London brought me up to speed, informing me that conversations had been had between the British government and the BBC, and that the Ambassador would make good on his pledge to unpick this fix.
And he did just that. He went to his personal safe and handed over the required amount, allowing me to relax during what was left of the evening.
One final twist awaited me at the airport the following morning. An over-zealous immigration officer noted that my visa expired the day before, and was about to call in his superiors. With bill paid, my minders would not have my last few minutes in their country sullied by an administrative error. The senior agent stepped in, snapped at the officer, and my exit visa was duly stamped.
As farewells go, it lacked the emotion of many I’ve been a part of, but bizarrely I was held longer and squeezed tighter than I expected by my two closest shadows.
“Mr. Richard, we will miss you. Come back again, won’t you.”
It’s been 15 years since that invite, and I’m not in any rush …