These are photos from a domestic football match I attended at the great leader stadium in Pyongyang. I was lucky to attend (I don’t believe it’s a super-common tourist stop) and I am grateful for the experience.
The match was a last minute substitution for a cancelled visit to The Kumsusan Memorial, reportedly the apogee of leader love. (Me: Why is it cancelled? Handler: frozen smile.)
It was Sunday afternoon when I was given the news, and since every hour (from 8 a.m. — or earlier — until bedtime) of every day you spend in NoKo is meticulously scheduled before you’re even granted a visa to enter the country, my NoKo coterie was wasting no time trying to fill the next morning’s now vacant 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. slot.
My disappointment palpable as my handler proffered one lame substitution after another, she suddenly spit out “football match?” followed by a desperate, pleading “I beg you not to choose football match” look that actually left me feeling guilty when I chirped, “football match!”
Several phone calls/discussions later (whenever anything deviated from the script — from ridiculously minor incursions to itinerary changes — “discussions” were had) she delivered the news: A football match was scheduled for the next morning, Monday, at 9:00 a.m.! How lucky!
Arriving at nine on the dot (No traffic! Never late!), we drove through the empty parking lot, and parked curbside in front of the “VIP” entrance. I was brought inside, and left waiting next to an escalator (which was, of course, turned off, because anything/everything that can be turned on in NoKo is turned off due to severe electricity shortages), while discussions between my handlers and stadium staff (?) were held.
After 10 minutes or so, my handlers returned to where my driver and I stood waiting, accompanied by the required local guides/handlers, and an escalator operator. As the escalator operator struggled to turn the escalator on, my cabal stood frozen, all smiles, considering the urgent need for further discussions. I asked why we couldn’t just walk up the 10 escalator stairs? Frozen smile-nods all around.
With the escalator emergency narrowly avoided when it turned on, we rode to the top. As we walked through the corridor to our seats, my handler turned and apologized, explaining there wouldn’t be many “local” people there watching because it was 9:00 a.m. on a Monday morning so people were working.
For once she was telling the truth: There were not many local people there.
I choose to root for River Amrok (in green); they choose to root for the home team, Light Industry (in white).
I taught my younger (“fresh”) handler how to smack talk, so as we sat watching together, we gave each other the closest thing to shit one could in NoKo. She seemed genuinely enthralled, shrieking when my team scored, and when hers did not (earning a spot on my “Shit I think might be real” list).
My other handler slept through most of the match. However, she did wake up once, coincidentally at the exact moment when her team had just missed an easy goal, and I promise you, without missing a beat, she shouted with pitch-perfect delivery, “Damn it!” I never loved her more.
Cheering along with us (a.k.a., castigating players who made mistakes) was this general. You’re not allowed to photograph anyone in the military unless specifically approved, but I accidentally photographed him while I was taking this photo of my handlers and the posh (notice our fold-up chairs) VIP area.
I spent a few minutes standing behind this cameraman in the photo below, ruminating on what year his camera was manufactured, and whether he was actually recording or broadcasting anything. The year cameras were invented, and, no.
During the second half of the game, a couple/few hundred additional people arrived. (Which in NoKo meant large groups of people — dressed in military or other uniforms, and/or outfits from the 1950s that were so consistent in appearance, it seemed like they were in costumes, organized in lines, five or six people across). Mostly watching me instead of the match, the majority seemed as confounded by my presence as I was by their arrival.
In yet another day that will live in infamy for the American Imperialists, my team, River Amrok whipped Light Industry’s ass, winning 3-0! Suck it, Light Industry!
So…was this a real, previously scheduled, Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. football match? And I had just been super lucky to have a Monday 9:00 a.m. slot that needed filling? Probably. I’ve been known to have some damn good luck (knock wood) in the past when traveling.
Or, had a COUNTRY just pulled together an entire football match (minus a few thousand fans), in less than 12 hours, solely for my benefit?
It was a thought too absurd, too egomaniacal, too lunatic, and too paranoid, to even consider. Right? Probably.