EVEN IN NORTH KOREA, BOYS and girls fall in love. On a cool autumn afternoon in Pyongyang, I watched as a young soldier, looking sharp in his dress uniform, took his new bride to receive a blessing for their union from a 40-ton bronze statue of Kim Il Sung. The statue stands on Pyongyang’s Mansu Hill, and it receives thousands of visitors each day. Like everyone else in the country, the bride and groom wore pins celebrating the late Kim. They laughed nervously when asked to pose for photos with foreigners, but they agreed, looking curious and distrustful at the same time. It was the first time they’d ever seen Westerners.
I GOT A RARE OPPORTUNITY TO VISIT the North in October—and even travel outside Pyongyang—because of the world’s most popular game. I played for Beijing Celtic, a soccer team comprising expatriates based in China. This fall, we were the first amateur team of Westerners ever invited to play in North Korea. The soccer tour was inspired by the film The Game of Their Lives, a documentary about North Korea’s 1966 World Cup team, which reached the quarter-finals of the tournament in one of the greatest shocks in soccer history, creating lasting bonds between some North Korean and European players. Beijing Celtic saw the film and decided that, if sport had once helped bridge the gap between this reclusive nation and the world, it could do so again. Surprisingly, Pyongyang agreed. So the trip gave us a rare opportunity to interact relatively freely with North Koreans. And, once there, we saw that, amid lunacy, shreds of ordinary life survive in the North.
OUR VISIT BEGAN IN OCTOBER, a time of heightened tensions between North Korea and the West. Until the day of departure, we expected the matches to be canceled. But, in the end, amateur sport triumphed, and we got our visas. We shared the aircraft to Pyongyang with surprise traveling companions: the Iranian national soccer team, who were also playing a match against the North. Chatting on the plane, we schmoozed our way into an invitation to what a White House speechwriter might have dubbed the “Axis of Evil Bowl.”
THE EXTENT OF NORTH KOREA’S ISOLATION was immediately evident in Pyongyang. At airport arrivals, we were stripped of anything that could be used to communicate with the outside world. No mobile phones. No video cameras. No radios. Our bags were searched, and we were frisked by no-nonsense police officers. Even the semi-celebrity Iranians had their mobile phones confiscated. (Angered, perhaps, they drubbed the North 3-1 two days later.) And, despite reports that information is starting to trickle into the North, there was little evidence that people are aware of the world. The local media is propaganda: The lead story in The Pyongyang Times noted, “Kim Jong Il provides on-the-spot guidance to agriculture.” There aren’t many newsstands. Bookstores are rare. When I asked one educated North Korean how many countries there were in the world outside the Korean Peninsula, he replied that there were seven at most.
BUT, DESPITE THE ISOLATION, EVERYDAY life persists—through the looking glass. North Korea has begun to liberalize its economy, and the north side of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which we visited, now even has its own gift shop, which peddles North Korean flags, pins, and books. Though Pyongyang and Washington trade barbs, in my hotel lobby I spotted a group of Western men. With their short hair and ramrod straight posture, they were obviously soldiers, and their drawls gave them away as Americans. Some two-dozen American specialists, based in Hawaii, were in North Korea searching for the remains of American servicemen killed during the Korean War. The missions operate quietly, with the U.S. side paying a reported $2.1 million in fees to the North Koreans for access to battle sites. Later in our trip, as the Americans’ most recent search mission was winding up, I saw American soldiers and their North Korean army escorts in the hotel bar drinking to each other’s health late into the night and singing Korean folk songs. Neither side seemed worried that, if relations between their nations deteriorated, the next time these drinking buddies meet they might be trying to kill each other.
OUTSIDE THE HOTEL, THE NORTH WAS having trouble keeping the lights on. Power cuts were frequent, signs of years of economic mismanagement. Yet Pyongyang’s almost three million citizens shivered in dark apartment buildings and made do with infrequent power supplies. Meanwhile, the 558-foot-tall Juche Tower, an imposing monument to Kim Il Sung’s philosophy of self-reliance, shone brightly, illuminated by energy-sucking floodlights. One other place kept the lights on as well: the tacky massage parlor/brothel/nightclub/casino in the basement of our hotel, which appeared to have its own generators and managed to stay open during blackouts. Off-limits to most North Koreans and run by the Chinese, this den of iniquity generates desperately needed hard currency.
THE LACK OF POWER DIDN’T HURT THE North Koreans’ soccer training. At the DMZ, I chatted with a North Korean army colonel, who calmly explained to me that the United States had started the Korean War with a sneak attack on the North. Upon learning we were a soccer club, the colonel chuckled, saying we were all “old and fat” and would probably lose 10-0. He was right. We had naively agreed prior to leaving Beijing that we would not win the game, since we didn’t want to embarrass our hosts. But we had been deluding ourselves. The North Koreans were quicker, tougher, and far more skilled than us, just as the colonel had predicted. They were the ones taking it easy on us. While a crowd of North Korean spectators laughed at us, we were shut out 2-0.
ON ONE OF OUR LAST DAYS IN PYONGYANG, we saw one more sign that times might be changing. A large construction project was underway, and, when I asked a worker what he was building, he told me it was going to be “something called a ‘market.’” Though he wasn’t too clear on exactly what a market was, that market opened three months ago and is doing a booming business selling everything from vegetables to imported whiskey.
Doug Nairne is a Hong Kong—based writer.
This article appeared in the February 9, 2012 issue of the magazine.